The International break is over, and Chelsea will now be getting back to work with four games in the next eight days. Because that's not enough for most football crazed fans, we've also got a pair of NextGen games to throw into the mix as well. The first of those games will be played tomorrow, when London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea meet in the first of two NextGen semifinals.
Those of you who read the website regularly are probably fairly familiar with Chelsea's squad, who reached the semis with a convincing 4-1 thrashing of Juventus after holding off of Barcelona while down to 10 players. They've been one of the youngest sides in the tournament, even more so since sending Todd Kane, Patrick Bamford, and Lucas Piazon on loan. For those of you not familiar with the squad, here are some of the key players to watch:
Jeremie Boga, midfielder
Anyone who watched the Barcelona game is certainly familiar with Boga at this point. The young Frenchman turned 16 years old in January, and actually debuted for the reserve side in 2012 before ever playing for the U18 team. He's been one of the standout players in the U21 league this season, and could easily find himself in the discussion for a first team bench role before the end of the season if we see some meaningless games. Lamin broke down a goal that almost was yesterday, and like most things Chelsea do at that level, Boga was a huge part of it.
Lewis Baker, midfielder
Baker will be turning 18 years old in about a month, and has been in sensational form for the U21 side this season. He has been with the academy since 2005, and has been an England regular at every appropriate age group. His decision making is excellent, and he's one of the few players at that age that I've seen that is truly equally capable with the ball on either foot. He'll take the majority of the set pieces for the Blues while likely playing a central midfield role. He's also capable of playing on the wings, and has done so occasionally this season.
Andreas Christensen, center back, right back
Christensen joined the club this season, and has been very impressive thus far. The 16-year old has been a regular in the U21 setup, and easily had his best game of the season against Juventus. He's a big, strong kid with good pace, and he's known for excellent passing and composure. He has also moved into a defensive midfield role several times this season, but with Todd Kane on loan at Blackburn, I'd expect 90 minutes at right back from him tomorrow. Ironically, Arsenal were also chasing Christensen very heavily before he decided to join Chelsea.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, midfielder
Loftus-Cheek will likely pair with Lewis Baker to anchor the Chelsea midfield, and has been featuring regularly for the U18 side this year. Ruben just turned 17 and is a bit more raw than Baker, but he's got the sort of size, speed, and strength combination that is awfully hard to find. He was called up for the England U17 game of Thursday, but was not used in the game.
Alex Kiwomya, wing, striker
Kiwomya is one of the more interesting players in the Chelsea system. The 16-year old is raw, but he's an elite level athlete with absolutely limitless upside. He was among the best sprinters in the world at younger age groups (and holds several British age-group records), despite often being very young for the group he was competing against. He played 23 minutes on Thursday for the England U17 side, so there's a very good chance that he will not be involved on Friday.
Nathan Ake, center back, fullback, midfield
I'm sure most of us are now familiar with Ake, as he has now made his senior debut for Chelsea. The Dutchman turned 18 in February, and didn't look out of place in his first start for Chelsea against Middlesbrough. He seems unlikely to make the trip though, as he was training with the Chelsea first team on Thursday. I wouldn't rule it out entirely, but I'd be surprised if he was in Italy.
Islam Feruz, striker
Feruz has caught a lot of eyes this season, as he has been scoring goals in bunches. The 17-year old lacks size, but he is pacy, explosive, and generally a clinical finisher with either foot. He's another that could be in line for a first team bench at some point this season, and will almost certainly be considered for a Scotland callup at some point now that the team cannot qualify for the World Cup. He generally starts up front alone, and will be a real test for the Arsenal center backs.
Hector Bellerin, right back
Bellerin recently turned 18, celebrating his birthday with a fabulous winning goal against Manchester United's U-21s. Bellerin has been a mainstay of the U-21 side and the NextGen team and has been on Arsenal's bench for the 3rd round of the League Cup. Bellerin joined as a right winger from Barcelona in the summer of 2011, but has played right back for the entirety of his time at the club. Like all Barcelona educated players, he's an excellent passer, but his driving runs are what stands out; one of those runs assisted the winning goal against CSKA Moscow. He can sometimes be defensively suspect, but he's a good tackler and has lots of pace. One of the favourites to progress to the full team.
Isaac Hayden, centre back/midfielder
Hayden, the U-18 captain, has cemented himself as a prospect this season. Like Bellerin, he just turned 18; he's a physically strong player, with good pace for a centre back. His positioning was exemplary against CSKA Moscow, and he's showed his versatility this season, having played a lot as a holding midfielder and even as a #10 in the recent match with United. He's got a good passing range, and, for an 18 year old, he's got excellent positional intelligence; he's rarely caught out. Versatility is a plus.
Yennaris will captain the side, and propelled the team into the quarter final with his winning long-range strike against defending champions Inter Milan. He's played on multiple occasions for the first team, making his Premier League debut as a right back against Manchester United. Holding midfield is his favoured position, and he's a physical force; he's a strong tackler, good interceptor and a decent passer. He makes good forward runs, as emphasised by his goal against Inter and his play in the 6-0 victory over Coventry City in the League Cup. One of the older players on the team, which makes him a natural choice for captain, but it's unlikely he'll make the grade as a first team player.
Serge Gnabry, winger/playmaker
Gnabry is one of the highest rated youngsters at the club, with first team experience this season. A decent comparison is with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gnabry is a strong player, but has explosive pace--he could've run long distance track for Germany, but decided on football. He's a wonderfully direct player, who has a bag of tricks. He's usually played in the wide areas, but against CSKA he played behind Chuba Akpom, and scored the winning goal, after receiving the ball in midfield, turned past his marker, played a one-two with Bellerin and then finish calmly. He's just 18, and is a standout at U-21 level; will probably feature more for Arsenal in next season's League Cup.
Thomas Eisfeld, winger/playmaker
One of the more well-known Arsenal youngsters, mainly because of his goal-scoring rate. He's a bit like Andrei Arshavin; he can do absolutely nothing, and then turn up and score, or make a decisive pass. He's got excellent shooting technique, with little backlift, but he does have a worrying tendency to drift out of the game, which might not translate well to first team level. He made his debut in *that* League Cup game with Reading, and was a crucial part of the turn-around. He'll be one to watch, but he could turn out like Sanchez Watt or Jay Emmanuel-Thomas: great at reserve level but lacking for the Premier League.
A powerful striker with great feet. Akpom has dominated the U-21 league despite being 16 and 17 for the majority of the season. He's a good finisher, and very quick, but like some past Arsenal standouts at this level, it's unclear whether it's down to his own ability or to being stronger and quicker than everyone else in the league. He's a prototypical Arsenal striker, though; able to hold play up, link up and play one-twos, and likes to drift to the left and drive in. There's a lot of hope for him at the club; next season will be crucial for him. He's been a key man in the NextGen series, and did an excellent job against Inter on a waterlogged pitch which wasn't conducive to passing, or any, football.
This should be a fairly fun game to watch, as both Arsenal and Chelsea generally like to press forward and attack. Arsenal certainly had to be considered as one of the favorites before the tournament got underway, while it was a bit hard to know what to expect from such a young Chelsea side. It will be interesting to see how both sides react to the big stage in Italy though, and should be a great experience for both squads.
Both clubs will be playing a pair of games in Italy, regardless of the outcome tomorrow. The winner will meet the winner of the second semifinal on Monday, April 1, while the losing side will play the other losing squad in the tournament's third place game.
Those of you hoping to watch the semifinals, here's how:
Chelsea vs Arsenal: Kick-off: 15:00 CET March 29, 2013 - Game can be seen live on Chelsea TV and Eurosport
Aston Villa vs Sporting Lisbon: Kick-off: 20:00 CET March 29, 2013 - Game can be seen live on Eurosport
Depending on how Chelsea do tomorrow, they'll also be playing in one of the following fixtures:
3rd place playoff: Kickoff 14:30 CET March 31, 2013 - No television details announced yet*
Final: Kickoff 18:00 CET April 1, 2013 - Game will be televised live on Eurosport*
*While it has not yet been announced, I'd assume whichever game Chelsea is involved in will also be carried on Chelsea TV
Update: It looks like Ake will indeed be with the first team, but both Alex Kiwomya and Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be joining the squad in Italy tonight.