Where to start? There were eight goals, several lead changes, and enough drama to fill a few seasons. There were defensive errors, wordly goals, and goalmouth scrambles. There were tactical switches, some class saves, and not much defense. In the end, a hilariously open FA Youth Cup final second leg ended 5-3 in favor of the Baby Blues, just good enough to overturn the 2-3 deficit from last week's first leg. And so Chelsea, in front of 13,000 inside Stamford Bridge win their third FA Youth Cup in five years. The Chelsea Cup is back with Chelsea!
Chelsea starting lineup (4-3-3):
Mitchell Beeney | Jay Dasilva, Jake Clarke-Salter, Andreas Christensen, Fankaty Dabo | Jordan Houghton, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Charlie Colkett | Kasey Palmer, Dominic Solanke, Charly Musonda Jr.
From the first whistle, it was end-to-end stuff. If the first-team has been often criticized for keeping things tight and pragmatic, then Adi Viveash's U18 side more than made up for that with attacking intent and barely a whiff of defensive organization (despite Andreas Christensen's best efforts).
Leading by one goal from the first leg - there is no away goals rule in the FA Youth Cup - it was Fulham who opened the scoring. A deep cross from the right side - Jay Dasilva struggling a bit in his left back role - found a wide open Moussa Dembele at the far post. His header from a very wide angle went straight into the ground but happened to bounce right between the unconvincing Mitchell Beeney's legs and into the back of the net. Questions could be asked of both full backs and the goalkeeper as well, but there was hardly time as Fulham looked to grab a quick second from a corner scramble. Fortunately they only found the post, their first of two today.
After edging the first 20-25 minutes, Fulham surely were not prepared for the next 5 when Charly Musonda Jr, starting on the right wing, decided to make his presence felt. Picking up the ball just past the halfway line, he dribbled straight at the defense, beating three before playing a one-two with center forward Dominic Solanke. Solanke's return found the small
man boy with perfect timing; same couldn't be said for the Fulham defender's slide tackle. Down to the ground went Musonda, and the referee blew for the obvious penalty kick. Charlie Colkett dispatched with aplomb and we were tied on the night.
Within a minute, Chelsea were tied on aggregate as well. Another run at the defense and another one-two with Dominic Solanke - are you watching, first-team? - this time the center forward's layoff finding midfielder Jordan Houghton who smashed it into the bottom corner from well outside the penalty area. But before we could even properly celebrate, the score was level once again with Fulham's England U17 international Patrick Roberts unleashing an unstoppable shot from the corner of the six-yard box. And just before half-time, Solomon Sambou repeated that trick from a more central area. Fulham were now ahead 3-2 on the night and 6-4 on aggregate and things were looking a bit bleak.
Adi Viveash rang the changes, Jose Mourinho-style, at the break. A triple change of straight swaps saw the ineffective Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kasey Palmer, and schoolboy center back Jake Clarke-Salter all withdrawn. On came three players who have seen more time at U21 than U18 level this year. Isaiah Brown slotted into attacking midfield in support of Solanke while Isak Ssewankambo shored up the midfield. Ola Aina dropped into defense to partner Christensen. Fulham would not score again.
The second half threatened to play out in rather familiar style, as Chelsea dominated possession but failed to create too many great chances while Fulham looked dangerous on the counter. Brown and Colkett both drew fine saves from Fulham's young Slovak goalkeeper Marek Rodak, but gone were the first half's incisive passing moves, replaced by a few too many crosses and hopeful long shots.
There were less than 15 minutes left on the clock when everything changed. Isak Ssewankambo - often a full back but today playing midfield - rifled a shot past Rodak and all the belief, all the drive, and all the determination returned to the boys in blue. While Fulham did hit the post from one of their countless counters, Chelsea's fourth goal never looked in doubt. It arrived with a simple play: a beautifully flighted ball from deep left from Colkett finding the head of Solanke who steered it into the bottom corner with all the cool calmness of a man who's scored the most goals of any Chelsea player at any level.
The two sides were tied on aggregate and extra time was a possibility. But Solanke was not satisfied with his one assist and one goal output. Colkett was once again the provider, this time with a backheel. Solanke had barely gotten back onside - or perhaps not; regardless, the linesman's flag stayed down - but in the tight space of the six yard box, he turned expertly and left Rodak with no chance. The net bulged, Stamford Bridge bounced. Scenes. The clock showed 93 minutes.
Finally, a trophy to celebrate! After losing the FA Youth Cup final to Norwich City last season, Chelsea are once again triumphant. After losing the NextGen Series final to Aston Villa last season, the Chelsea youth can celebrate once again. And they still have the U21 Premier League playoff championship to win (exact date to be announced for that).
Stamford Bridge has born witness to a few disappointing nights lately. But tonight, tonight it was celebration time.