Chelsea had been magnificent in the NextGen Series, but beating Aston Villa in the final proved a bridge too far for the young Blues despite the inclusion of Nathan Ake in the starting lineup. Despite outplaying their opponents in the first half, a penalty just after the break completely changed the game and Chelsea simply never recovered, eventually falling 2-0.
Ake, flown in from England for this match, received plenty of attention prior to kickoff but failed to settle quickly, apparently unaware of just how poorly the pitch played. His first touch was a mess, setting up the young Villans for a scoring opportunity within seconds of kickoff, but Samir Carruthers blazed mercifully over.
Ake's early problems were not mirrored by the rest of the side. A superb turn by Ruben Loftus-Cheek set the Blues up for a break, and Alex Kiwomya's effort forced a good save out of Bradley Watkins, with Villa's defence fortunate to get to the rebound before Islan Feruz could sneak in.
Minutes later, Feruz won a corner after a one-two with Kiwomya and a near-post effort, blocked by Bradley Lewis, and the Scottish forward was at it again after great movement from Jeremie Boga set him up for another, easier shot -- once again Watkins was up to the challenge.
It had been a fast-paced first ten minutes, and Villa were clearly over-matched in open play. The Villans responded with a heavy press, trying to push Chelsea back into their own half and force either the defenders to mistakes in possession or Mitchell Beeney into a long, contestable punt upfield.
The tactic worked, and the underdogs nearly managed to grab a surprise lead when Callum Robinson got clear of Kevin Wright and sent in a low delivery through the six yard box. Fortunately for the Blues, Jack Graelish was on his heels when the cross came in and didn't manage to attack it, allowing Andreas Christiensen to shepherd clear.
That chance seemed to wake Chelsea up, and they immediately created an opportunity at the other end of the pitch, with Kiwomya demonstrating his freakish speed to pull clear of the Villa defence. His finish, unfortunately, was not up to par, trickling gently wide.
Boga did somewhat better when he somehow contrive to play a through-ball to himself, but his cross to Feruz was just barely parried clear by Watkins. Then it was Feruz's turn to get himself into a good position and cross, although the result was more or less the same. Moments later Kiwomya had partial redemption for his earlier excuse for a shit* when he found himself in space following a partially-cleared corner and blasted at goal -- Watkins managed to keep that effort out too.
*This typo will not be fixed
And Villa weren't entirely impotent. Chelsea switched off and allowed Riccardo Calder to get in on the right. His cross wasn't cut out, falling to Robinson three yards from an open goal, but a poor touch allowed Beeney the time to scramble back and avert the danger.
After a couple of misplaced shots from Lewis Baker, it was the Blues turn to blow a clear-cut opportunity. Ake popped up in the attack and found himself rather miraculously free on goal following a bit of a scramble in the Villa box. His not-particularly-good shot beat Waktins, but the goalkeeper got enough on it for Calder to race back and clear off the line.
Missing enough chances almost always comes back to haunt sides, and so it was here: Aston Villa took the lead right at the beginning of the second half. The dangerous Robinson turned Alex Davey inside and out, eventually inviting the centre back into making a challenge. It wasn't a clever idea -- Robinson went down, the ref pointed to the spot, and Graham Burke sent Beeney the wrong way to make it 1-0.
Robinson nearly did the Blues more damage when he set up Carruthers, but the Villa captain's shot went well over, while at the other end Kiwomya managed to get himself booked for a dive following a clash with Lewis Kinsella. It was an odd situation -- the striker was clipped, but stayed on his feet only to think better of that decision and fall down a second or so later. The referee was not amused.
Chelsea were having real trouble getting back in the game. Villa were able to sit deep and absorb pressure and were more than happy to cede the wings to the Blues, mopping up in rather straightforward fashion whenever crosses came in. And they were also a threat on the counterattack -- 2-0 felt far more likely than 1-1.
2-0 nearly came after a series of corners. Carruthers had not impressed with his shooting, but when he received the ball at the corner of the box he sent in a brilliant delivery that was matched by an equally brilliant save from Beeney.
But Chelsea needed to score, and they didn't look particularly capable of doing so. Villa had grown into the game, and apart from Burke demonstrating ridiculous hot-headedness for no apparent reason and trying to turn Baker into a double amputee (he missed, and saw yellow), they looked relatively comfortable defending their lead.
Their task was made even easier when Kiwomya got himself sent off with a second booking for a foul on Kinsella as the game wound down. Josh Barton then earned a second penalty, which Burke put into the top corner. After the dust cleared, Villa had a 2-0 win -- and the NextGen championship, the first English team to win it.
As for Chelsea, it was an excellent run and they played well for much of the final, but ultimately found themselves unable to break down an opponent that refused to open themselves up once they'd gone ahead. There's no shame in losing a final, but the kids will regret being so profligate in the first half. We've had a pretty good day regardless.