In their final match before the biggest occasion of the season to date, Chelsea’s Under-18s cruised through Saturday’s academy league fixture against Birmingham City with a 2-0 win, as Milan Lalkovic and Jacopo Sala both netting for the second week in a row.
This weekend’s youth report is a little more abridged than usual due to no CFCnet representation (first team commitments come first!) but instead we’ll take a deeper look at the upcoming FA Youth Cup Semi Final clash against Blackburn Rovers. On Saturday, however, Birmingham posed little thread and at times the match resembled something of a training session, according to coach Dermot Drummy:
“At times we were knocking it round like a training match, we were so in control, and we were able to put three subs on before Wednesday to give everyone some game time, then Gokhan came off as a precaution but Birmingham still didn’t offer anything against us”
Gokhan Tore’s injury could give Drummy an easier decision than he currently faces in terms of selection, but we’ll get to that. Lalkovic had an early chance before opening the scoring with his fourth of the season in the first half with a sublime touch and finish after meeting a similarly impressive long ball from Rohan Ince as he cut in from the left. Sala, a lesser feature in academy football this season after progressing to the reserve setup, has played more of late as the cup reaches the business end, and added his second goal of the campaign in stylish fashion, beating a man before curling over the goalkeeper into the top corner. Marko Mitrovic could have added a third later in the game, whilst Ince got through another 45 minutes, although Daniel Mills Pappoe was rested, as was Josh McEachran, who played just the second half.
Team: Walker, B.Clifford, Ince (Strickland 45), Deen-Conteh, Sampayo, Kaby (Saville 45), C.Clifford (c), Sala, Lalkovic (McEachran 45), Gokhan Tore, Mitrovic
Goals: Lalkovic, Sala
Which brings us to this Wednesday at Ewood Park. Chelsea will travel up to Lancashire for the first leg of their biggest game of the season, and are in good shape, heading into the match twelve unbeaten. The Blues last tasted defeat away to Arsenal in early December, and moreover have been in fine fettle in the Youth Cup. Their four ties to date have yielded eleven goals with just one going in at the other end, and could probably be considered favourites to lift the prestigious trophy. With only Philipp Prosenik and James Ashton missing from the squad with long-term injuries, Drummy is likely to be able to name his favourite team, but will still face a dilemma if Gokhan Tore does recover as planned.
Sam Walker will keep goal, and the back four of Billy Clifford, Daniel Mills Pappoe, Jeffrey Bruma and Aziz Deen-Conteh should be reprised. Bruma has played in two of the four ties so far, but may be a late decision depending on whether he has to be involved in the Champions League tie against Inter on Tuesday night. If he is unavailable, Rohan Ince will fill in, but it’s the midfield where the intrigue lies. Conor Clifford and Kaby are almost certain to start, as you would think Josh McEachran is. However, the Oxford-born midfielder has been absent from the starting line-up in the last two academy games as Drummy has utilised a 4-2-3-1 formation featuring Lalkovic and Gokhan wide, with Sala playing off Marko Mitrovic. It has been successful, and raises the question of how to integrate McEachran back in.
Back in December at Charlton in the third round, Kaby was the man to make way as McEachran played alongside Clifford in the same formation. However, the Portuguese has proven his worth in recent rounds and will be key to success against a talented Blackburn midfield, meaning one of the attacking midfielders would have to step down. Lalkovic missed the Portsmouth tie injured, as Sala did away to Watford, but with both in goalscoring form it becomes hard to leave either out. Gokhan’s injury may be a blessing, but at the same time he is by far and away the biggest creator of goals for the Under-18s this season and his absence would be surely felt.
In any event, it’s a dilemma most managers would love to have. Blackburn are a tough prospect and beat Chelsea to open the season back in August courtesy of an 86th minute goal from Michael Potts. Managed by Gary Bowyer, they remain in contention for the Academy League title, sitting just three points off the top of a competitive Group C and have the propensity for goals in abundance. Former Arsenal schoolboy Jason Banton has been prolific this campaign, netting all five in a 5-1 win against Barnsley, and with Tom Hitchcock (son of former blue Kevin) and winger Jackson Ramm in support, they will fancy their chances after sending Manchester United and Everton packing in the last two rounds.
Wednesday night’s match kicks off at 7pm and is live on ChelseaTV. The return leg is at Stamford Bridge on Monday night, also at 7pm on ChelseaTV. Tickets will NOT be available on the night and must be bought from the box office, either online, phone or in person. They cost £3 for adults and £1 for concessions and will be sat in the East Stand Lower Tier. A capacity of 3000 has been set by the club, so act fast if you want to support the lads.