It seems that Chelsea and Manchester United just cannot avoid one another these days; after Wednesday’s Champions League Quarter Final, it was the turn of United’s Under-18’s to roll into Stamford Bridge this lunchtime to take on their Chelsea counterparts in the first leg of the F.A. Youth Cup Semi-Final.
Chelsea are the holders of this competition and, in Josh McEachran, can boast a captain who has also played 15 games for the first team this year. As for United, they were deprived of Ravel Morrison and Tyler Blackett through suspension and John Cofie through injury. On the other hand, Will Keane returned to the team after about 2 months out with a leg injury, meaning that United could field a genuine striker for the first time in quite a while.
About 5,500 made their way to a sunlit Stamford Bridge for this one and saw the home side make a very positive start. United’s midfield of Cole, Pogba, Tunnicliffe and Lingard were too occupied with defensive responsibilities to offer lone striker Will Keane much support. Sam Johnstone was kept busy in the United goal, saving well from the dangerous Slovakian Chelsea striker Milan Lalkovic and on one occasion racing 30 yards from his goal to fly-hack clear as Chelsea threatened to break through. That breakthrough duly arrived on 29 minutes. Chelsea won a corner on the right and from it, Johnstone, perhaps impeded by his own defenders, dropped the ball and Chelsea centre-back Nathaniel Chalobah slid in to poke a right-footed shot past Johnstone from about 6 yards out.
United tried to respond, but Paul Pogba, normally so dominant in these games had started slowly and seemed preoccupied with trying little ball-playing tricks in the wrong area of the field. Gyliano van Velzen was getting absolutely no change out of Todd Kane down the United left and Keane was having to feed on scraps. Lingard, Cole and Tunnicliffe were getting forward as often as they could, but Chelsea, marshalled by McEachran, looked fairly comfortable. Having said that, Will Keane was actually guilty of a complete howler after 38 minutes; clean through on goal with an awkwardly-bouncing ball, he prodded ineffectually at it, made no contact and the chance had gone.
Larnell Cole in action at Stamford Bridge
Even so, it was a bit of a shock when Chalobah put Chelsea further ahead just before half -time. This time, the centre-back met a corner with a looping header that dropped just under the crossbar, beating both Sam Johnstone and the diminutive Larnell Cole, who was stationed on the post.
0-2 at half-time seemed a little harsh on United and Paul McGuinness will no doubt have focused on getting Pogba into the game more and getting more support up to help out Will Keane. Whatever he said began to pay immediate dividends as United, roared on by a sizeable contingent of travelling fans started the second half in a more attacking mode and began to threaten the Chelsea goal more than at any point in the first half. The hitherto ineffective Van Velzen hit a powerful drive from about 12 yards out and Chelsea goalkeeper Jamal Blackman had to dive to his right to claw the shot away. Blackman was again in action after 55 minutes when Pogba, who seemed at last to be making some impact on the game, produced a raking 30 yard shot which Blackman tipped over. However, from the ensuing corner, the ball fell to Jesse Lingard beyond the far post and he produced a controlled half-volley which flew into the roof of the Chelsea net. United were now well on top, with Tunnicliffe making some trademark runs from deep and Pogba pushing further forward to help out Will Keane. Cole and Lingard were also pushing forward with intent and United had Chelsea penned in their own half for substantial periods.
Jesse Lingard fighting for the ball…
All the more surprising, therefore that Chelsea contrived a third goal in what was a rare foray into United territory. Left-back Deen-Conteh took advantage of Michael Keane being out of position and skated past Tom Thorpe on the left before producing a low cross that unmarked winger Bobby Devyne sidefooted home from 7 yards out.
With the summery weather and the pace of the game beginning to take its toll on players from both sides, it was a question of whether United could summon up enough energy to get a vital second goal and they managed it after 77 minutes. Lingard’s initial corner was cleared and Tunnicliffe fed it back out to his fellow midfielder. This time he produced a better cross and Pogba rose above the Chelsea defence to head home from about 8 yards out.
Paul Pogba; vital goal
And that was just about that; heat, cramp and tiredness dominated the last 10 minutes and though United might feel that their dominance of the second half deserved an equaliser, it wasn’t to be. With a second leg at Old Trafford to come on April 20th, McGuinness will be confident that the Young Reds can overcome the narrow deficit. Both teams will welcome back injured or suspended players and it will be interesting to see how Chelsea cope with the guile of Ravel Morrison. Hopefully the Mancunian fans will turn up in force to support the team and cheer them on to a two-legged final against this year’s surprise package, Sheffield United, who beat Aston Villa in the other semi-final.