Stamford Bridge this week saw action on back-to-back evenings, with Wednesday’s 3-0 first team drubbing of Birmingham City acting as the starter for Thursday’s FA Youth Cup Fifth Round main course. A tough and hard-fought tie against Portsmouth in heavy rain was settled by an early first half goal from captain Conor Clifford, and the Blues are into the last eight for only the second time in the last five years, where they will await Watford or Liverpool.
Dermot Drummy was able to pick the team he wanted, with just one change from the weekend line-up against West Ham. The only position up for contention was that of the right wing, where Jacopo Sala has thus far been given the nod over the lesser experienced Milan Lalkovic. The Italian would prevail again, if even by default, as Lalkovic picked up a knock on Saturday and was unable to even line up as a subtitute. Portsmouth brought a stronger team than in the league fixture back in November, giving starts to Gael Nlundulu and Nadir Ciftci, whilst schoolboy centre-back Sam Magri was able to bolster their defence, having missed the first meeting due to international duties. On a heavy and long Bridge pitch, Chelsea took to the field in their white away shirt, with Portsmouth presumably unable to afford to wash their change kit, such are their financial worries.
The visitors set about a high-tempo pressing game and it brought about a Chelsea injury in the opening minutes. Cifci went through the middle but left enough ball to entice Clifford and Daniel Mills Pappoe to both make a challenge. The ball was won, but the Irishman was caught on the follow through and received treatment for a knock to the knee. He was able to resume momentarily, which was good news as he was to go on to have a major influence on the match and its outcome.
Chelsea earned their first corner inside the opening five minutes and it caused immediate problems for the South coasters. Gokhan Tore whipped a ball into the near post and Sala made his way to flick a header across goal. At least one touch helped it on its way but the ball struck the far post before being cleared off the line to safety. Not to be deterred, the hosts duly opened the scoring after ten minutes, and it was all Conor Clifford. After winning the ball with a strong tackle well inside his own half, he drove forward and exchanged passes with Josh McEachran. A fizzed pass wide to Sala followed, and he was once again there to take it back, before a quick one-two with Mitrovic. He then bustled into the area and slid to the ground to fire the ball past Liam O’Brien in the visitors goal. It was a fantastic sweeping move with one man at the heart of it, and the captain had taken the game to Portsmouth and come up with the opening goal.
Perhaps enthused by his scoring antics, he was soon brought back to earth with a bump, picking up a yellow card for an overly assertive tackle on Len Sowah. Chelsea had most of the possession without making much else happen, and everything that was good came through the captain, who was almost everywhere. Portsmouth had a brief sight of goal midway through the half when the powerfully built Ciftci volleyed high into the empty Matthew Harding Lower section, but fleet-footed winger Gael Nlundulu made sure Sam Walker was awake but driving into the box and forcing a good stop at the near post from the England youth stopper. Ciftci had a free header from the following corner, but it lacked conviction and saw an easy save.
As the rain continued to pour, Chelsea spread the ball well and involved everybody, particularly Billy Knott, who was having an all-action half himself. Impressive in a defensive capacity, he had the crowd purring with a sumptuous backheel to nutmeg the opposing right-back whilst taking the ball in stride. Further chances before half time failed to truly materialise for the Blues, but it took a fantastic last-ditch tackle from Aziz Deen-Conteh to prevent Ciftci from shooting to level the scores in stoppage time. The young left-back has been making a name for himself in the middle and tonight saw another accomplished performance from a developing young footballer.
If the first half was the Conor Clifford show, Josh McEachran ensured that the second would be prime time viewing. He took the game under control after the restart and showed his full repertoire, the reasons why he has this week been given a first team squad number. Not at all fazed by the physical stature of the Portsmouth midfielders, he had time nobody else found, and saw things nobody else saw. His use of the ball was consistently effective and his vision in attempting to break down a stout back line knew no bounds. He was immediately involved from kickoff, giving Kaby the ball thirty yards from goal, but the Portuguese sent a shot crashing wide of the target.
The second period also saw Sala wake up. After a first half largely spent in Sowah’s pocket, he came inside to pick up the ball and run at the defence. He beat a man and lined up a shot, but O’Brien was comfortable in watching it skid wide. Using the slick, wet turf, Chelsea’s tails were up and they were inches away from a second when Mitrovic hit the post for the first of two times on the night. A sweeping counter attack, reminiscent of the Swede’s goal at the weekend, saw Deen-Conteh, McEachran and Sala combine to create the opening, but a first-time right-footed effort ricocheted back off the goalkeeper’s left hand post. It was a move which deserved more, and one which summed up the gulf in quality between the two teams.
The hosts were turning the screw and seeking to put the game to bed, and Billy Clifford was next to shine. Persistence and strength in beating Sowah earned praise from the crowd, but his excellence out wide came to nothing with nobody able to get on the end of his cross. Sala forced a good low save from the next attack, and when Gokhan saw his effort turned away for an umpteenth corner kick, the second goal appeared to be just a matter of time in coming. Sala picked up a booking for another foul on the effective Sowah, but the biggest chance fell to Mitrovic midway through the half. McEachran danced his way into a shooting opportunity, and O’Brien was unable to hold his skidding effort. The rebound came towards the Swedish striker, in such good form, but his right-footed clip slipped agonisingly wide of the far post.
The goal to seal the deal just wouldn’t come, not when Sala found his goalbound effort blocked by Magri, nor when Gokhan had another effort deflected to safety. It was proving to be a tense closing few minutes and Chelsea hearts were in mouths when a vociferous penalty appeal from Portsmouth fell on deaf ears. Ciftci volleyed an effort into Mills Pappoe and was adamant it struck his arm. The referee waved play on, and the decision appeared to have been correct, with the ball hitting the defender’s torso. Whilst the visitors bemoaned their luck, Mitrovic set about atoning for his miss, but saw his effort from the edge of the area rattle the woodwork yet again, for a team total third time on the night. From the rebound, the ball was poorly cleared and Sala found the back of the net, but was offside.
Time ran out on Portsmouth’s cup campaign but for the wet, jubilant hosts, the dream continues. With the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal all out of the competition, they will fancy their chances of going one stage further than their 2008 counterparts managed, but there are some tough opponents left, not least either of the potential Quarter Final opponents. On the night Conor Clifford and McEachran stole the show, but special words must also be reserved for Billy Clifford, Billy Knott and Aziz Deen-Conteh. The front three were a little disappointing, but it was a night to celebrate and look forward to another dramatic cup campaign.
Team: Walker, B.Clifford, Mills Pappoe, Deen-Conteh, Knott, C.Clifford (c), Kaby, McEachran, Gokhan Tore, Sala, Mitrovic
Goals: C.Clifford ’10
Booked: C.Clifford, Sala