Chelsea's youth squad overcame the worst possible start to today's fourth-round FA Youth Cup match as they came from behind to defeat Arsenal's highly-touted youngsters 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. After a second minute own goal by midfielder Billy Clifford, Chelsea would have been excused for letting their heads drop, but the Blues kept going and did their part in producing a wonderful display of attacking football, although that could be attributed in large part to the complete inability of either side's defence to hold the forwards and midfielders at bay. Milan Lalkovic was the hero for the home side, netting the equaliser shortly after halftime before dancing free of Arsenal's centre backs in the 91st minute and slotting past a helpless Emilio Martinez for the winner, sending the 7,000-strong crowd into raptures and his team into the fifth round. Celebrations were slightly tempered, however, by the fact that Arsenal's Nicholas Yennaris suffered a suspected broken ankle mid-way through the first half.
Much had been made of the match before kickoff, and with two of the strongest youth sides in the country many were expecting a fascinating battle. Adding an extra layer of excitement to the clash, at least for Chelsea fans, was the inclusion of 17 year-old Josh McEachran in the starting eleven, the midfielder returning to the youth side he led to last year's cup win from his usual place in the first team. The fact that Chelsea's manager Dermot Drummy had recently served under his Arsenal counterpart Steve Bould did not go unnoticed either.
It didn't look like it was going to be Chelsea's day as the home side went down just seconds after they kicked off. Although McEachran, who was fielded as a free-roaming advanced playmaker, started the game off with a lovely reverse pass that cut out the entire Arsenal midfield, Chelsea soon contrived to give the ball away, and the visitors quickly won a corner down the left. The ball was swung in and challenged for by Gunners centre back Sead Hajrović, who completely missed his header. Instead, the ball bounced straight off Billy Clifford, who appeared to be ducking out of the way, and into Jamal Blackman's net. Barely a minute had gone by and Arsenal were up 1-0.
Chelsea showed no signs of bowing to early pressure, however, and were immediately back in action as Lalkovic, who was spearheading a three-man attack with Bobby Devyne to his left and Todd Kane on his right, burst onto a long, bouncing through ball, easily outpacing Arsenal centre back Ignasi Miguel. His snap-shot from 16 yards looked to be going wide, but Martinez made sure by palming it round the post. The corner led to nothing, and Arsenal were able to attack again, thanks primarily to some phenomenally bad defending by right-back Ben Sempayo, who was regularly coughing the ball up well inside his own half under little pressure.
The home side began to assert themselves, however, thanks primarily to McEachran in the centre of the pitch, who seemed to be at the heart of their play for the entire first half. The midfielder sent Lalkovic haring down the left with a lovely lofted through-ball, but the Slovakian's attempted centre just failed to reach Kane despite a stumble by Miguel as he tried to cut it out. Just minutes later Chelsea were probably fortunate not to concede a penalty when Daniel Pappoe brought down Arsenal frontman Chuk Aneke in the box - the ball rolled out of play but the expected whistle never came, much to the team's relief.
Then it was time for Chelsea to attack again. Billy Clifford was given the chance to atone for his earlier disaster when he was picked out at the far post with only Martinez to beat, and his cross-cum-shot looked a sure bet for a goal but Miguel somehow smacked the ball clear for a corner, despite being under heavy pressure and directly under his own crossbar. Worse was to come just minutes later as a McEachran delivery caused chaos amidst Arsenal's defence, leaving Clifford free to tap in from several yards out. The celebrations were cut short by the fact that he was well offside, as pointed out in the traditional way by the linesman.
It just wasn't to be for the young Blues in the first half. Devyne should have scored but curiously opted to play the ball with his left foot and then fall down rather than simply tapping home with his right following a Lalkovic cross, and then Pappoe's goalbound header from a corner was kept out by a brilliant clawed reaction save from Martinez. Lalkovic was clearly shoved over by Miguel chasing the rebound, but the referee kept his whistle in the pocket once more, which probably cancelled out the first non-penalty decision.
The rhythm of the game was interrupted by a collision between George Saville and Arsenal captain Yennaris at the half's midpoint. Yennaris was down for several minutes as he was attended to by medical staff, and was eventually stretchered off and sent immediately to hospital - word has it that he's suffered a broken ankle. Replays of the incident weren't shown and the tackle didn't look particularly dangerous upon first viewing, but I can't begrudge Bould some anger about it with one of his best players hospitalised. Josh Rees came on to replace Yennaris as play resumed.
Arsenal were suddenly getting their fair of chances and Blackman had to work pretty hard to keep them from making things 2-0. The defence bent but didn't quite break, although there were a couple of near-calamities. Pappoe and Blackman had a communications issue with Aneke lurking that was eventually resolved by the goalkeeper flopping on top of the ball, but things got a little trickier shortly thereafter when Benik Afobe was released down the left. Blackman was forced to dive in at the striker's feet to reclaim the ball - fortunately his bravery was rewarded with a clean save. A few minutes later and Pappoe mopped up after his defensive partner Nate Chalobah had left him in a tricky situation, but Chalobah redeemed himself by clearing a shot off the line, one which certainly would have been unsaveable if Afobe hadn't slipped while hitting it. Left back Aziz Deen-Conteh was the next Chelsea defender to have a bit of a problem, very nearly turning a loss cross into his own net - fortunately he managed to steer the ball wide for a corner.
Chelsea were having chances too, primarily using Lalkovic's pace and McEachran's delivery to keep Arsenal on their toes. Twice the far post was targeted, and both times the shots went barely wide - a curler by Lalkovic after being set free by a superb pass from McEachran was followed several minutes later by a daisycutter near halftime. The half ended with a dangerous-looking Chelsea free kick, but Clifford's delivery was poor, Martinez claimed easily, and Arsenal went into the break guarding a 1-0 lead, one which they certainly didn't deserve on the balance of play. The match was so stretched that it could have been 4-4 pretty easily, and Chelsea might have been disheartened that Arsenal's goal seemed protected by what seemed to be supernatural forces, but when they came out of the tunnel to start the second half, it was the visitors who seemed as though their heads weren't in the game.
If Chelsea had gift-wrapped Arsenal the opener, they were repaid with interest in the 49th minute. Loose balls rolling slowly back towards one's area aren't normally considered a problem if the closest two players to the ball are the defending team's centre-backs, but Milan Lalkovic had been threatening Arsenal all game with his pace and turned on the jets, blowing past a lackadaisical 'run' from Hajrović before darting past Miguel. Martinez realised what was happening just a little two late and charged out of his goal to close down the threat, but the striker reached the ball before the now-stranded goalkeeper and had the simplest of shots to slip home, which he did with aplomb.
Chelsea had threatened in fits and starts in the first half while absorbing major Arsenal pressure, but the second half was a different story. McEachran, who had been so influential in the first 45 minutes, was essentially man-marked out of the game, which had the effect of freeing up space for the rest of the team to play in. Given their fullbacks' tendencies to desert their positions ('left back' George Brislen-Hall seemed particularly guilty here), Chelsea were more or less free to create down the wings at will, and most of their really dangerous moments came when they cut in from outside.
That's not to say they didn't create in the centre as well. Arsenal's defence was by now routinely falling apart, and when Devyne was fed on the edge of the area by Lalkovic with plenty of time and just Martinez to beat from a good angle, we might have expected Chelsea to have gone ahead. Alas, the winger opted for neither power nor placement, passing a weak side-footed effort straight to the goalkeeper rather than simply hammering a shot goalwards.The chances were starting to pile up again, and with Arsenal's quality, we knew that they could make something out of nothing at any moment - the Blues needed a goal.
Perhaps hoping to spark something, Dermot switched right back Sampayo for left-sided midfielder Adam Nditi, pushing Kane to right-back and bringing the shape to something more like a 4-4-2/4-2-4, with Nditi and Clifford providing width going forward. Before attacking, though, the Blues had to deal with the Arsenal threat. Jernade Meade, who'd been perhaps the most impressive player on the pitch for the Gunners made himself a nuisance once more by playing a call that cut through the Chelsea box - fortunately the red shirts on hand couldn't quite manage to make contact as it flew behind for a goal kick.
That was to be the last significant attack Arsenal conducted for a long period of time, as Chelsea took it up several levels in their quest for the winner. Substitute Ndoti was particularly effective, carving out space for his teammates and feeding Lalkovic for a curler - it went, not unsurprisingly, just wide of Martinez's far post. Clifford followed that attack up with a shot which was blocked by Miguel, then made up for his earlier poor deliveries by swinging in a free kick that may give Martinez nightmares for the rest of his days. Two almighty goalmouth scrambles followed, and the goal was at Chelsea's mercy twice in thirty seconds, but somehow Arsenal survived unscathed.
As the game started winding down it was obvious that Chelsea had expended a lot of their energy and were starting to tire. In the 73rd minute Todd Kane went down with cramp while in possession of the ball, leading to a dangerous Arsenal break. Kane was eventually substituted for Rodgers, but Arsenal had a foothold int he game once more and had an extremely dangerous spell. Their best chance came seven minutes after Kane came off the pitch after Billy Clifford committed a foul on Meade on the edge of the box. Clifford complained, but the match referee rightly pointed out that the laws of the game prohibit headlocks and other manoeuvres of that nature and gave the foul.
Chelsea were caught cold on the resulting free kick, and it took an intervention by McEachran to deny Miguel a goal, deflecting a shot bound for the bottom corner wide. Blackman couldn't quite claim it and the multiple crosses came in before Deen-Conteh suddenly sprang free with the ball and almost released Devyne on the right, with only a very timely interception/tackle from Martinez, who was 25 yards out of his own net saving Arsenal another embarrassing goal with no offside flag in sight.
The cramp had by now spread to Arsenal's players as well, Meade the most obviously suffering, and the rest of the game was played at a somewhat slower pace. While four minutes stoppages were announced, I wasn't expecting anything less than the match going to extra time and possibly penalties. Arsenal were marginally the fitter side (and had just introduced another substitute, bringing Swiss defender Martin Angha on for the unimpressive Hajrović in a like-for-like switch) , but clearly neither team was able to play at anything like full speed.
That may have come to pass, but Chelsea's substitutes had other ideas. Adam Ndoti had only been on the pitch for half an hour and was still going strong, so when he picked up the ball on the left he was able to stride forwards and slide in a cross for Lalkovic, who had ceased his habit of running around like a madman and had taken to lurking with intent inside Emilio Martinez's box. His first touch took both centrebacks out of the play, his second shifted the ball onto his left foot, and his third slipped the ball home from inside the six yard box, finally finding the correct side of the far post. 2-1 Chelsea in the 91st minute, and that was surely the winner.
Or was it? Arsenal attacked straight from the restart, and with three minutes yet to be played there was time for a comeback, something the senior team had forgotten two weeks ago when they hosted Aston Villa. Corners were swung in, heroic work was done by Blackman in coming to claim them, and Chelsea expended their last substitute to burn some time, with the excellently named Archange Nkumu coming in for two-goal hero Lalkovic. With the very partisan Chelsea TV announcers screaming for Deen-Conte to take the ball to the corner flag, the young fall-back opted to launch an attack instead, but fortunately for him by the time Arsenal could reclaim the ball, the final whistle went, launching Chelsea's baby Blues into the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup.