Well well well...so perhaps not the exhibition we all hoped for, but the Chelsea Youth have managed to prevail tonight against a resilient, organized, and committed Norwich City Youth side.
Making only one change from the team that scored a come-from-behind victory in the 3rd round, Adi Viveash's sent his side out in a formation familiar to anybody following Chelsea at senior or youth level. The multi-continental front three of Lucas Piazon, Islam Feruz, and Amin Affane were supported by the midfield trio of Nathaniel Chalobah (holding), John Swift (box-to-box), and Lewis Baker (furthest forward). Todd Kane took his customary position at right wing-back, Adam Nditi doing the same on the left, while the central duo of Danny Pappoe (making his Cup debut) and Nathan Ake (he of the Ruud Gullit / David Luiz hair) were tasked with keeping the ball away from Jamal Blackman's goal.
The youth team can certainly play some very attractive football, but Norwich did their best to make sure this was not one of those occasions. They do have one of the stingiest defenses in the English Academy Leagues, and their quality showed tonight. All night, for most of the 90+30 minutes, they pressed and hassled the Chelsea lads, hardly allowing more than three passes in a row. Much of the game was a scrappy, chippy affair...but we hung in there and eventually prevailed in the shootout.
It took about 20 minutes for Chelsea to settle into the match, spending much of the early period playing nervously, giving away the ball needlessly, and getting out-muscled and outworked by their yellow-shirted counterparts. Norwich failed to make us pay for any of that though (as, in fact, they would fail a few more times throughout the match), first missing an open far post header then firing well over from a dangerous free kick from the edge of the box. Adam Nditi, especially, was having a bit of shocker on the left side of our defense, alternately gifting opportunities to the Canaries and ending promising Chelsea moves with sloppy passes.
Fittingly, it was Nditi who then carved out the Blues' first real chance, putting a dangerous low cross into the danger zone - Norwich's Remi Matthews, quick off his line, claimed just ahead of the onrushing Feruz. Not a minute later, a wonderful Luiz-esque run and through ball from Nathan Ake found Piazon all alone at the top of the box, only for the Brazilian to fire straight into Matthews who was once again quick to the ball.
After that brief Chelsea flurry, the teams traded chances for the rest of the first half. First Blackman produced an excellent save after Pappoe's semi-botched clearance left Norwich's Loza all by himself in front of goal, then Todd Kane (in one of his rare involvements in the first half) managed to round the keeper, only to get crowded out by the Norwich defense. Lewis Baker, architect of Kane's chance, was looking lively, but his long-range shooting (as well as the rest of the squad's frequent decisions to bomb it from distance) was far too reminiscent of his senior counterparts.
Pappoe picked up a nasty-looking knee injury on the aforementioned clearance as well, forcing Viveash into an early change: Archange Nkumu coming on in a straight swap. Injuring the same knee that kept him out earlier this season is certainly bad news for young Danny and here's hoping for a quick recovery for him...
The second half saw more of the same scrappy, chippy action as the first. Norwich threatened very little, but outside of flashes of strength & skill from Swift & Baker, they kept our players well shackled.
Alex Kiwomya's introduction in the 68th minute for the entirely anonymous Affane livened things up. Swift, Baker, and Alex himself all had decent chances to open the scoring, but the Canaries kept calm, cool, and collected and continued to repel Chelsea with certain ease. Piazon came within inches of drawing a penalty, the referee awarding a free kick instead on the line. Lewis Baker fired that one straight into the wall, epitomizing Chelsea's ineffectiveness from set pieces.
As legs got tired and extra time was becoming a near certainty, Nathan Ake did his best impression of "Insanity by David Luiz (TM)", needlessly and carelessly losing the ball to Norwich's danger-man Loza. Bearing down on goal all by himself, Loza must have thought he had the match won, only for Nkumu to come flying in with a fabulous sliding challenge. "He had to make that tackle" is a cliche often heard, but it was certainly deserved in this case.
The first period of extra time saw the first real period of Chelsea pressure, perhaps owing more to Norwich's tiring legs than anything new and special produced by the Baby Blues...as evidenced by our inability to carve out anything more than a half-chance. In fact, it was Blackman who was called into action again, recovering to tip a header over after he had stranded himself in no-man's land on the free kick.
Outside of Norwich's Josh Murphy, both sides were rather unspectacular in the second period of extra time. Murphy opened the period with a powerful shot to which Blackman stood tall and strong. Then with time winding down, Murphy took a page out of the extraordinary, flicking the ball over a Chelsea man in a lovely piece of play, only for his finish to let him down. Blackman collected the tame shot and we headed to the penalty shootout.
We were ahead even before we had kicked the ball, with Norwich's first crashing down and out off the bar. Chalobah stepped up to coolly roll his kick into the bottom left corner to make our early lead a reality. Norwich's second was well saved by Blackman, quick to his left, and after Piazon repeated Chalobah's success, the shootout was Chelsea's to lose. Smart finishes from Kiwomya and Lewis Baker (brimming with confidence as he balanced the ball on his head while walking up to the spot) cancelled out Norwich's next two makes and the tie was won!
Nathan Ake put in a most Sideshow-esque performance: excellent outside of one episode of sheer terror. John Swift & Chalobah were tenacious up the middle, with the latter providing a couple of Hollywood balls out to the wings. Feruz worked hard up top, while Piazon clearly knackered himself fully out. Kiwomya's quickness made a positive impact on the game, while Lewis Baker was consistently involved in most everything good coming from the Baby Blues.
The youth were tried and tested today. It was by no means a vintage performance but they fought hard and emerged victorious, making it count when it mattered the most.