A crowd of several thousand gave their Friday nights to a group of teenagers who are the future of football. Chelsea and Aston Villa shared a hard fought 1-1 draw in the first leg of their FA Youth Cup Semi Final, leaving the tie finely balanced ahead of the second leg in a fortnight at Villa Park.
In front of Roman Abramovich and Frank Lampard, amongst others, The Blues lined up for what for most of them would be the biggest match of their careers to date. Chelsea lined up as expected, leaving Jacob Mellis on the bench in favour of Frank Nouble out wide, and Gael Kakuta in attacking midfield. Villa’s key players Nathan Delfouneso, Barry Bannan and captain Ciaran Clark all started.
Inside the first five minutes a strong tackle from Jeffrey Bruma left Villa full-back Sam Simmonds limping, a challenge he wouldn’t recover from and had to go off injured. Villa had the best of the early ball but Chelsea’s directness was causing problems, as first Nouble charged through before being cut off and then Nielsen sent a weak header into the arms of Elliot Parish.
The half wasn’t memorable for any clear cut chances, the quality of teams on show meaning mistakes were limited and the players would have to work hard for what they could get. Stoch was trying his best to cause problems but coming up short, whilst Kakuta was being kept very quiet. Villa’s Jordan Collins had an effort go flying over the crossbar, and the impressive and lively Marc Albrighton delivered a fantastic cross between defence and Rhys Taylor that nobody gambled on.
Villa came out for the second half much the better side, Collins forcing a fine save from Taylor inside a minute, but they wouldn’t have to wait long before they took the lead. Bannan broke up a Chelsea move in midfield and chipped a ball through to Delfouneso. The 17 year-old, who has recently signed professional terms, took the ball down and used the leverage his size gives him to outmuscle Gordon and van Aanholt before knocking a left foot shot past Taylor to give the travelling Villa supporters something to cheer.
Chelsea almost levelled within a minute. Clark’s clearance smashed right into Bannan’s face, and as the Scotsman lay prone on the floor, the rebound landed in the penalty area and perfectly for Stoch. Parish was quickly off his line though, and forced Stoch’s chip to fall into the empty front rows of the Matthew Harding Stand. Minutes later, Kakuta found himself with enough time and space to play a sublime through pass to the onrushing sub Mellis, who smashed a shot at Parish, who once again saved impressively.
Chelsea were coming into the game a lot more as they became desperate to get a goal back, not wishing to go into the second leg trailing, but Clark had the next chance of the game, a header straight at Taylor from a Bannan corner. The Blues then had a header of their own, Stoch going down the right and delivering a peach of a cross to the far post, where Kakuta missed a good chance at the near post.
Everything by now was going through Stoch, the Slovakian proving once again his dynamic change of pace and ability to beat a man is a constant threat. Time and again Villa showed him down the line to his ‘weaker’ left foot and he still delivered threatening cross after threatening cross. With five minutes left one of these crosses fell to substitute Adam Phillip at the near post, but he could only turn the effort onto the woodwork.
It felt like the game was slipping away from Chelsea, but the same combination was to combine a minute later for Chelsea’s deserved equaliser. This time the ball went across the face of goal and Phillip arrived at the far post to slam the ball in before running off with it in his arms in a joyous celebration. Almost straight from kickoff, Stoch picked the ball up again, and this time was showed inside. With little on, he hit a 25 yard shot which Parish saved easily.
As the fourth official indicated three minutes of added time, Villa had a corner. Taylor appeared to have dealt with it comfortably but dropped the ball and in the ensuing melee he suffered an injury, and Villa appealed for a penalty. For a few moments it looked like Sam Walker was set to make his Stamford Bridge bow in replacement, but the Welsh Under-21 international recovered to resume. Deep into stoppage time – some 97 minutes now as a result of Taylor’s treatment – Mellis robbed Hofbauer in midfield and saw himself with a clear one on one with the Villa goalie. But, as with much of the second half, the youngster made an impressive stop and the two teams will resume in a fortnight with nothing to separate them – away goals not counting in this competition.
Stoch was Chelsea’s star performer on the night. Much will have been expected of Kakuta, the season’s star, but Stoch was superb when he played on the left. A spell on the right hand side was less successful but his constant threat down the other flank proved Chelsea’s saviour. Mellis impressed as a sub, whilst the Dutch pairing of Bruma and van Aanholt at centre-back performed very well. For Villa, Delfouneso was a threat, Albrighton had a very good first half and faded, whilst Bannan pulled the strings in the middle, but Elliot Parish was superb in goal and saved his team from an uphill task.
Team: Taylor, Ofori ©, Bruma, van Aanholt, Gordon, Woods, Tejera, Kakuta, Nouble (Mellis 45), Stoch, Nielsen (Phillip 60)
Goal: Phillip ‘87
Pictures from the game, taken by Dan Davies, can be seen at www.ddpix.co.uk