Chelsea's youth side face their toughest test of the season tomorrow as they attempt to continue their FA Cup defence in a fourth-round tie against Arsenal. The FA Youth Cup is restricted to players under 18, so expect to see a lot of unfamiliar names - except, of course, for first team regular Josh McEachran, who doesn't turn 18 until March 1st. McEachran led the team to their triumph in the final last season, their first win in 49 years, and his presence on the squad indicates that Chelsea are taking this clash very seriously indeed.
In the previous round, Chelsea struggled to overcome Sunderland (explained in part by last Thursday's match being their first game in more than a month) but eventually broke through 2-0 thanks to goals by Nathanial Chalobah, who was profiled earlier today on the site, and midfielder George Saville. According to now-retired ex-Chelsea schoolboy Sam Hutchinson, they didn't do particularly well in that game:
I tried to be honest and I know the boys closely, they are a good team and I expected a bit more. It was a battle at the end of the day, they hadn't played for four weeks, the weather up at Sunderland wasn't nice, it's not an easy place to play, so it was an accumulation of things but importantly they did what they had to.
-Sam Hutchinson. Source: Chelsea Official Site.
Unlike the Blues, Arsenal's youth side has an easy time against their last opponents, thrashing Darlington 6-1 at home in December. 17 year-old forward Chuks Aneche notched a hattrick and three assists in the rout, the first goal coming when the game was just 10 minutes old. Apparently, only conceding six flattered the visitors. Arsenal are considered to have one of the strongest youth sides in the country, and Chelsea surely have a major task on their hands in keeping them at bay tomorrow.
The Chelsea team that faced Sunderland was a 4-3-3 per the Chelsea official site:
Jamal Blackman; Billy Clifford, Daniel Pappoe (c), Archange Nkumu, Aziz Deen-Conteh; Nathaniel Chalobah, Anton Rodgers, George Saville; Todd Kane, Milan Lalkovic, Bobby Devyne.
Presumably Josh McEachran will take both the captaincy and one of the attacking midfield slots against Arsenal. Here's the team Arsenal deployed against Darlington, which was also a 4-3-3 according to Arsenal blog Young Guns:
Emilio Martínez; Sead Hajrovic, Daniel Boateng, Ignasi Miquel (c), George Brislen-Hall; Oguzhan Özyakuo, Nico Yennaris, Kyle Ebecilio; Chris Aneke, Benik Afobe, Nigel Neita
I'm not going to pretend that I know much about any of these guys, but I'm reasonably convinced that in McEachran Chelsea will have the best player on the pitch by a decent margin. The game kicks off at 7PM GMT on Thursday, and you can tune into live TV coverage through the internet if you're a Chelsea TV Online subscriber. Join us tomorrow in the game thread for what should be a fun clash between two strong youth sides.