A hugely entertaining first leg of the FA Youth Cup Final saw Chelsea come from behind for the third straight game in the competition to earn a much deserved draw that leaves them with a chance of lifting the trophy at the City of Manchester Stadium in a fortnight’s time. On the balance of play the home team, backed by a crowd of just under 12,000, would have deserved to take a lead to Manchester and make their chances even better, but it wasn’t to be and there is still work ahead.

Paul Clement caused few surprises with his line-up choice, preferring Jacob Mellis in central midfield to Frank Nouble on the wing, meaning Gael Kakuta was pushed wide to accommodate the former Sheffield United youngster. Man City were missing Slovakian goalkeeper Filip Mentel but had Daniel Sturridge up front, a player with two senior professional goals to his name in 2008.

The visitors started brightly, Sturridge proving his credentials inside the opening five minutes by first making van Aanholt look silly in the corner and then providing Rhys Taylor an early chance for a save with a tame left foot shot from the edge of the area. At the other end, Chelsea’s star player was causing problems, as Kakuta twice unleashed long range efforts, with his range slightly off.

The first notable chance fell to the City captain Ben Mee after 20 minutes. Weiss’ corner found the head of the skipper, but Taylor showed fantastic agility to tip the ball wide of the post whilst diving backwards. It was a save worthy of the very highest stage and kept Chelsea in the game at a crucial time. Minutes later, Chelsea had the ball in the net, but referee Peter Walton and his linesman combined to chalk it off. Morten Nielsen brought a ball into possession well and got around Mee before lobbing the advancing Greg Hartley. Walton however had decided that the Dane had deliberately used his hand to settle the ball, and booked him for the indiscretion.

Just before the half hour mark Nielsen went close legally, shifting the ball around on the edge of the area but dragged his shot wide. The Chelsea pressure was rising and they went even closer five minutes later, as a short free kick routine saw Woods cut the ball back for Tejera 8 yards out. His first-time shot on the turn hit the top of the near post and bounced to safety. The Spaniard was then denied a goal for the second time in three minutes as he diverted Mellis’ pass into the net, but was a yard offside and this time there were no arguments about the disallowed goal.

For all Chelsea’s first half dominance and chances, the two were to go into the Stamford Bridge dressing rooms level at half time with the scoresheet blank. It didn’t remain that way for long after the restart, City needing just four minutes to change that.

Chelsea gave possession away too easily, Mellis looking to take a deep free kick too quickly and wasting the ball. Weiss picked it up at halfway and drove deep into the middle of the Chelsea line. His pass released Sturridge inside the left channel and from 8 yards out he coolly finished past Taylor, showing his class and advanced ability to give his team a lead they didn’t deserve, but had.

It led to a dominant spell for the visitors, a spell in which they should have added a second goal. Weiss hooked a shot woefully wide when he should have at least hit the target, then after Mellis had a chance but fell over, David Ball wasted a gilt-edged chance to give City an almost unassailable lead. Chelsea were pushing up, but allowing Sturridge’s pace to worry them on the break. Patrick van Aanholt largely dealt with him exceptionally all night, and on this occasion he was missing, as Weiss broke and cut the ball back to Ball, ten yards out and entirely unmarked. Taylor dived low, the shot went high, and into the empty seats in the Upper Tier of the Shed End.

Adam Phillip was sent on as the regular FA Youth Cup super-sub and started to show his game-changing ability with his dynamic running and link-up play. With 25 minutes left, Chelsea levelled deservedly, with the goal coming from the star of the season. Stoch’s corner tempted Hartley into coming, but Kakuta’s run got to the ball first, and the little man’s header crashed in off the crossbar.

As with the first goal, the confidence flowed from the team who had just scored, as Stoch forced a save before Tejera placed an 18 yard shot just wide. A loud and energetic crowd covering all four stands were willing the youngsters on, and the big chance came with ten minutes left. Phillip again was involved, running to the edge of the box before sliding Kakuta in. He took a left footed shot first time, with the angle slightly against him, and could only see the shot fly high over the goal. The French wizard was to have one more moment, carrying the ball through midfield with options right and left but choosing to shoot from the edge of the area. The ball was destined for the bottom corner until the very last second, where it swerved inches wide of the post.

So, Chelsea will go into the second leg again with a 1-1 home scoreline, and work to do. Their performance was entirely worthy of a win, and saw top performances from Taylor, Woods, Mellis and Kakuta, but in particular van Aanholt. As the most experience of the four defenders he took on a responsibility to deal with the troublesome Sturridge and after a shaky start was excellent in nullifying the most dangerous attacking outlet on the field.

More photos from the game can be found on Dan Davies’s web site

Team: Taylor, Ofori-Twumasi ©, Bruma, van Aanholt, Gordon, Woods, Tejera, Mellis, Stoch, Kakuta, Nielsen (Phillip 61)

Goals: Kakuta 66

Booked: Nielsen, Mellis

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