With the restructured youth competitions in England and Europe, one of the things we looked forward to the most this season was the increased challenge available to Chelsea's U21, U19, and U18 teams. And just like Dermot Drummy anticipated when he switched tonight's U21 Premier League title playoff final from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford, the Chelsea boys have accepted the challenge, rose to the occasion, and have now walked away with a second trophy in just as many weeks.
After winning the regular season in the Barclays U21 Premier League, Chelsea entered a single-elimination four-team playoff with Liverpool and Manchesters City and United. We needed penalties to squeak by City in the semifinal, but we did one better against their neighbors in red.
In name this may be an under-21 competition, but Chelsea regularly field teams full of teenagers. Tonight was no different, with two 17-year-olds in the starting lineup (Charly Musonda Jr., the most impressive Ola Aina), two more on the bench (Kasey Palmer, Charlie Colkett), and three more who would've probably played a part but were otherwise occupied (Jeremie Boga and Alex Kiwomya - injured, Isaiah Brown - away on international duty). Our oldest, in goal, was Jamal Blackman (20), while the rest were 18- and 19-year-old stars like Lewis Baker, John Swift, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathan Aké, Isak Ssewankambo, Andreas Christensen, Adam Nditi, and Islam Feruz.
Facing them was an older, more experienced United side who were going for their fourth title in five years at this level. Two of their starters played for the senior side over the weekend versus Hull City, James Wilson memorably bagging two goals. Ben Amos, practically with a foot in retirement at 24, deputized in goal. Unsurprisingly, it was United who settled quicker and posed a greater threat, especially early on.
A game that featured some tremendous quality at times - especially in contrast with the diabolical Europa League final that was going on at the same time - produced its first goal from a wonderful bit of attacking play by the hosts. Carving open Chelsea's left side (right winger Janko and right wingback Varela were impressive going forward all game long), an inviting cross found Wilson in the box. His perfect layoff brought the onrushing Tom Lawrence into the play, who had lost both Ake and Loftus-Cheek with his well-timed run. A superb touch and an even better move put two Chelsea defenders on the ground, and the man whose first-team debut was lost in the glory of Wilson's brace made no mistake in curling the ball around Blackman.
The goal settled the game down, United content in letting Chelsea keep possession, but also preventing the Blues from creating any actual dangerous opportunities. While Chelsea's confidence and ease on the ball was nice, we were lacking any significant purpose in our play. Charly Musonda Jr. broke from the script once though, and that was enough to get Chelsea back on level terms. He's sure to draw even more comparisons to his countryman Eden Hazard, after he beat three players at the top of the box, and gave the goalkeeper no chance with a long, angled effort.
Things changed a bit in the second half, especially once Ruben Loftus-Cheek decided to take over the midfield. After a season that has largely failed to live up to the promise shown in last summer's post-season and pre-season tours of American and Asia, it was wonderful to see the 18-year-old back at his Matic-esque best. The big man was involved in both of Chelsea's best chances of the half and the game, first creating a clear-cut chance for Baker with a cutback from the right touchline, then, after another bursting run into the box, testing the goalkeeper with a powerful low shot from close range. Since we've watched Chelsea toil for the last nine months in front of goal, we were hardly surprised when both chances went begging.
But football is an odd game sometimes. After all the slick moves, all the confident passing in tight spaces, our winning goal came from a simple play and a mistake from the opponent. Sloppy play from the United backline gifted the ball to Feruz, who touched it on to Baker. While we know he's capable, and our Young Player of the Year had already produced a world class shot in the first half, this one was not one of Lewis's finest efforts. But it was low and close enough to the far corner that it beat the outstretched hand of Ben Amos.
United did not go away quietly. They pressed, they harried, and there even a few handbags as Chelsea looked to slow the game down. Jamal Blackman, a virtual spectator for most of the game, was called into action on a few crosses and saved his best for the third minute of stoppage time, tipping Tyler Blackett's spectacular volley around the post.
And so the Chelsea youth teams collect their second trophy of the season, completing a league and cup double to help verify our claims of providing a world class footballing education. Now comes the tough part though, figuring out the next steps in their careers!