In the deepest doldrums on last season, before all the good feels of Roberto Di Matteo and the magic of the Champions League, many of us drew hope and courage from the performance of the Chelsea youth. While AVB's team floundered, the likes of Lucas Piazon, Islam Feruz, Todd Kane, Nathan Ake, etc kept our faith in the future of the club. The kids' run to and subsequent victory in the FA Youth Cup final (ALL THE FA CUPS!) certainly ranks as one of the top moments of Chelsea FC's 2011-12 season.
This season, the emphasis has shifted a bit. There are various reasons for this (loans, new competitions, etc.), chief of which being the hugely disappointing failure on Chelsea TV's part to actually show any of these matches on a regular basis. The last one I managed to watch live and in full was in fact way back in September, when Marko Marin made his debut in the U21/Reserve side. We may be able to witness a similar debut back from injury today with John Terry.
As far the U21 Premier League itself goes, Chelsea had a bit of a mixed autumn. After losing four of the first seven matches, they recovered to finish with four wins in five - scoring 16 in the process - and just missing out on 2nd spot in Group C of the First Group Stage by a point (behind runaway winners Liverpool U21 and surprising Wolverhampton U21).
Now at this point, the U21 league gets complicated. From the original three groups (22 teams total), the eight best qualify for the Elite Group Stage, the next seven qualify for Tier 1, while the last seven enter the Tier 2 Qualification Group. After another round of group matches (the first of which is this one with Fulham), the winners of Tier 1 and Tier 2 face each other in a playoff for a chance at the Elite Group winners in the final knockout stage semifinal. The winner of that match then plays the winner of the other semifinal between the second and third placed finishers in the Elite Group to determine the ultimate winner of the 2012-13 Barclays Under 21 Premier League. Got that?
With Patrick Bamford (four goals in last five), leading scorer Islam Feruz (five goals in eight appearances), Lewis Baker (four goals in the league from the 17-year-old who won our hearts with his confident penalty kicks in last year's FA Youth Cup), George Saville (now captain behind the loaned out Todd Kane), and Nathan Ake (imperious as ever in the heart of the defense) leading the way, Chelsea has every chance of still challenging for the U21 Premier League title.
Date/Time: Thursday, January 10, 2013, 19:05 GMT; 2:05 P.M. EST; Jan.11 12:35 A.M. IST
Venue: Cobham Training Centre
Online: Chelsea TV
Chelsea starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Sam Walker; Adam Nditi, Andreas Christensen, John Terry, Tika Musonda; Ruben Loftus-Cheek, George Saville; Lewis Baker, Billy Clifford, Milan Lalkovic; Islam Feruz
Substitutes from: Mitchell Beeney, Alex Davey, Lamisha Musonda, John Swift, Alex Kiwomya
One additional programming note: Chelsea's newest young stud Wallace and his Brazil U20 chums are in action in their opening match at the Copa Sudamericano U20 tonight at 6 P.M. EST. This match is live on BeIN Sport here in the States with Wallace the likely starter at right back. Catch it if you can!