After a tough and hard-fought tie in which tempers occasionally boiled over, Chelsea’s youth team prevailed in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup Semi Final on Wednesday night and returned to London with a 1-0 advantage, courtesy of an own goal from a familiar name to Blues followers.
Gokhan Tore was the only short-term injury doubt ahead of the game after picking up an injury against Birmingham at the weekend but was fit to start, meaning Milan Lalkovic was the one to make way for Josh McEachran’s return. Daniel Mills Pappoe was joined at centre-back by Jeffrey Bruma, who was on the bench for last night’s European clash with Inter, and arrived in Lancashire at 4am. It all meant Dermot Drummy was able to name his first choice team.
In front of a healthy crowd at Ewood Park the game got off to a bustling start, with Jason Banton looking to make early endeavour. For Chelsea, Gokhan was showing no sign of injury and saw the ball early and often, engaging Jackson Ramm in battle early. Blackburn’s aim was to play through the channels whilst the visitors were looking wide at every opportunity, although it was captain Conor Clifford who had the first effort in anger, a rather tame effort from distance.
As Chelsea took a hold of the game, chances started to fall to Marko Mitrovic. He set his sights with a header and then had a shot at goal, before his third go, another header, was unlucky to come back off the outside of the post. Nevertheless, the Blues were in control and midway through the first half grabbed a deserved opener. Gokhan swung a corner towards a dangerous area and it went in off the unfortunate Tom Hitchcock. Tom is the son of former Chelsea goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock but certainly won’t have meant to do his dad’s old club any favours, but 1-0 it was.
Captain Clifford was causing concern for Chelsea fans after picking up two knocks inside half an hour, both as the result of combative play in the midfield. However, whilst the second incident left him struggling, the Irishman was able to resume playing to near full capacity.
As the first half reached its conclusion Blackburn became more confident and looked a smarter, more competent team than the first twenty minutes or so had shown. Still, they had been unable to worry Sam Walker much, and only came close from set pieces, where some aggressive play from Anthony O’Connor earned a talking to. Chelsea went into the break with a one goal advantage, but in the knowledge there was still a lot of football to be played.
As if encouraged by their upbeat end to the first half, Blackburn came out for the second half all guns blazing and penned their guests back early. Captain Grant Hanley had displayed his physical prowess earlier in the match and went as close as anyone to levelling things up, his header cleared off the line by Kaby. However, the Portuguese was about to go from hero to villain.
The match grew a little spiky as Morris appealed for a home penalty before everything kicked off. Jacopo Sala made a poor challenge on Michael Potts, and handbags ensued, with a mass brawl developing. In and amongst the crowd, Kaby was seen to have thrown a punch, and received his marching orders for the second time this season. For his part in the fracas, Potts was also shown the red card, and so the match was ten a-side.
Blackburn’s tails were well and truly up and Walker was forced into a superb save by Hanley again from a corner. The same man went close from the following delivery and was proving a real handful. Morris had another penalty shout turned down, this time for handball, whilst Billy Clifford found himself in the referee’s book alongside Sala.
Whilst the hosts had the better of the game, Chelsea had the best chance to score the game’s second goal. A swift break opened space for Mitrovic, but his shot across goal missed by a foot at most. It was a gilt-edged opportunity and the Swedish hitman knew it. Blackburn brought on Yamen Osawe, who scored the goal to get his team past Everton in the Quarter Finals, in hope of him repeating his previous antics.
It was Drummy’s boys who carved out further chances though, but Sala and McEachran were unable to test goalkeeper Swann to any great degree. McEachran made way for Milan Lalkovic with ten minutes remaining, leaving Conor Clifford as the only recognisable central midfielder on the pitch for Chelsea. Despite the extra attacking shape, Blackburn weren’t able to use the space available to them and spent most of the closing stages in their own end, defending a series of set pieces as their opponents ate up the clock.
Five minutes of stoppage time caused Blue hearts to flutter, but at the same time Lalkovic had a glorious chance to take a two goal lead on the break, but rather rushed his effort from distance, wasting the moment. Mills Pappoe then was able to force Swann into a save, whilst Ben Sampayo saw a brief cameo to shore up at the back, replacing the hard working Mitrovic.
Osawe had the final go for Rovers but Chelsea were able to prevail, and will go into Monday night’s second leg in the driving seat. Blackburn showed that it won’t be an easy game at Stamford Bridge, but it’s certainly a position they’d rather be in than not. What price a second win for the club at Ewood Park in a week on Sunday too? Now that would be nice.
Team: Walker, B.Clifford, Mills Pappoe, Bruma, Deen-Conteh, C.Clifford (c), Kaby, McEachran (Lalkovic 82), Sala, Gokhan Tore, Mitrovic
Goals: Hitchcock ’23 og
Booked: Sala, B.Clifford
Sent Off: Kaby