On Friday night, Stamford Bridge will play host to some of the brightest talents in football as Chelsea and Aston Villa go head-to-head in the first leg of their FA Youth Cup Semi Final. For Villa, this is nothing new, reaching the final twice in the last decade, but for Chelsea, this represents their first appearance in the final four for 35 years, and arguably their best ever chance at winning the prestigious trophy.
The Cup run has been a welcome addition to a relatively successful season for Paul Clement’s boys. In the last few years they’ve impressed extensively in the league but have suffered Cup elimination to Liverpool twice in succession, a team that then went on to lift the trophy on both occasions. But Liverpool are gone this time, eliminated by Sunderland, who face Manchester City in the other Semi Final.
Back in August, Chelsea pieced together their academy squad for the season, featuring over ten newcomers to the club from outside of its own set-up. Such things could have seen the boys take some time to settle in and become a unit, and they did, only scoring two victories in their first six games. Since the end of September, however, the team has only lost five times, and three of those came in a nasty New Year spell.
The Youth Cup run started on a freezing cold night away to Stevenage. An injury to Gael Kakuta (more on him later) saw Adam Phillip enter the game before half-time, and it was his goal that saw a dominant Chelsea team through. The draw for the 4th round was kinder, presenting a home tie at Griffin Park against Shrewsbury, who had upset the odds and eliminated Newcastle. In front of a watching England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce, the boys swept to a 4-0 victory, featuring two goals from Jacob Mellis.
As the competition moved towards the business end of things, Leicester were next up, and an extremely strong test, as the Foxes have proven to be one of the best academy teams over the last two seasons. However, a crowd of over 1200 at Stamford Bridge helped inspire the Blues to a convincing 3-1 victory with goals from Nielsen, Kakuta, and Stoch. With Port Vale surprising Tottenham in their 5th Round tie, the Quarter Final draw set up an intriguing clash at Vale Park.
Step forward Gael Kakuta. The French midfielder-cum-striker has been the absolute star of the Under 18s team this season, leading in both goals and assists, and at Port Vale he notched an impressive hat-trick and had a hand in the other two goals as Chelsea cruised to a stunning 5-2 victory, earning numerous plaudits from the local fans and Vale management.
Villa started their campaign with a win over Crewe before scraping past Colchester 1-0. Then, they too stepped up a gear as the competition numbers dwindled, annihilating Ipswich 5-0 at Villa Park before travelling to Carlisle and winning 2-0 there to seal their place in the Semis. England Youth striker Nathan Delfouneso and diminutive Scottish playmaker Barry Bannan have been integral to Tony McAndrew’s team’s run this season, between them scoring in every round, with Delfouneso scoring a hat-trick against Ipswich.
So who exactly is going to play for Chelsea on Friday night? The FA Youth Cup is open to players in their second year of scholarship or younger – for this season that means any player born on or after September 1st 1989. For the Blues, that eliminates previous u18 standouts Scott Sinclair and Ben Sahar, preventing the team from loading the team with Premiership-level talent to stand a chance of winning.
Rhys Taylor will start in goal. The Welshman is the regular Reserve team goalkeeper and has improved immeasurably with regular football at the next stage in his development. He remains eligible for the competition and has only conceded three goals on the path to the Semis. He displays good agility and shot-stopping skills, organises his defence well and is extremely proficient at kicking.
Heading up the back four is captain Nana Ofori-Twumasi. The Ghanaian-born England Under 18 international will probably be the best physical specimen on the field – he’s built like an Essien – and will get up and down the right all night. Ben Gordon should start at left back off the back of half an hour for the reserves on Monday, whilst in the centre we should see a Dutch pairing of Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt. Followers of the reserves will be used to seeing van Aanholt at left-back, but in the centre of the defence is his preferred position and the one he has played most in his career.
He arrived at Chelsea in the summer as the equivalent of a second year scholar. His partner Bruma isn’t even a first year yet. Being born in November 1991, he played the first half of the season aged just 15, and will get a scholarship contract in the summer. Arguably the most talented of the summer arrivals, he oozes class and quality, and uses the ball magnificently, popping up with the odd goal here and there.
Clement will use a three-man midfield, most probably anchored by Michael Woods. Usually more of a box-to-box type, the former Leeds lad will play a more disciplined and restrained game to allow Jacob Mellis and Sergio Tejera to push forward. Neither is absolutely guaranteed to start, although one of them more than likely will, and they offer different things. Mellis has a great drive to get into the box from deep and has great vision. Tejera is less dynamic but more of your typical playmaker. He can use both feet to equally accurate precision, and his set pieces can be invaluable.
Both of them may start if Kakuta is selected on the left wing. He can play there, or he can play in the attacking midfield role. Wherever he plays, everyone’s eyes will be on him and his striking orange boots. He can only really be described as a magician – his left foot is wonderful, his shots are packed with a surprising power, and he sees things nobody else does. If he starts in midfield, Frank Nouble could start on the wing. Another who is too young to be a scholar, the 6’4” England Youth international (of Ivorian heritage) can play up front but is used out wide to allow him to use his pace, strength and skill to overwhelm full-backs.
On the other wing you have a physical polar opposite. Miroslav Stoch is probably about half the size of Nouble but offers an electric change of pace and skill that worries the life out of opponents. They will flank Danish striker Morten Nielsen, who flatters to deceive but has worked long and hard on his target-man and hold-up play and at this level is a handful for opponents.
The two teams have met once this season back in September. Jack Saville scored Chelsea’s goal in a 2-1 loss. Villa also won the meeting before that by the same score in April 2007 at Cobham, Stoch scoring the goal on that occasion.
Kickoff on Friday night is at 7pm at Stamford Bridge. Entry is FREE and is absolutely encouraged for such a big game for these boys. One year ago, Arsenal put up an attendance of 30,000 for their FA Youth Cup Semi Final home leg against Manchester United, where tickets were also free. There won’t be as much media coverage of this tie, so an attendance of similar numbers is unlikely, but tell your friends, tell your colleagues, quite frankly tell anyone with an interest – the future of football at Chelsea (and this country) is on show for free at a Premiership stadium – an opportunity not to be missed.
Entry will be via the West Stand Lower turnstiles, with the rest of the stadium being opened should numbers demand it. Anything approaching 5,000 or above would be sensational.
A full report will follow on CFCnet, where you can also keep right up to date with the progress of Chelsea’s Youth and Reserve teams.