Youth Cup Semi-Final Preview: In Chelsea, Reds face formidable final-four foe
Posted by nickogs20 on April 9, 2011
With the first team fighting for silverware on three fronts and big games coming thick and fast, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s not just United’s senior side that look set for a thrilling (and hopefully trophy-laden) climax to the campaign. Warren Joyce’s reserves are in hot pursuit of a treble of their own, while United’s U18s are 180 minutes away from the FA Youth Cup final, with the first leg of their last four clash with Chelsea taking place at Stamford Bridge this Sunday.
Paul McGuinness’ side have reached the semi-final stage for the first time since 2007 and now take on the holders for the right to face Sheffield United – conquerors of Aston Villa in the other semi – in the final. A crowd of over 7,000 is expected at Stamford Bridge for Sunday’s first leg, which kicks off at 12:30pm, and the Reds will be hoping to set themselves up nicely for the return leg at Old Trafford on Wednesday 20th April (tickets are still available for that second leg – please see MUFC’s official site for details).
United’s progress through the competition thus far has been impressive in a number of different ways. Single-goal victories over Portsmouth and West Ham were achieved in much more dominant and emphatic fashion than the scorelines suggest, while the 1-0 win against West Ham at Upton Park was a fine example of digging deep to get a result when not quite on top form. The quarter-final against Liverpool meanwhile showcased the incredible spirit within the squad, with the young Reds roaring back from two goals down to record a remarkable and memorable triumph at Anfield.
The quality of opposition, particularly in the last three rounds, has ensured United have had to do things the hard way, and it gets no easier in the last four. As mentioned, Chelsea lifted the trophy last year after an eye-catching, free-scoring run through the competition, and that they’ve managed to advance to the latter stages once more with relatively few of last year’s starters involved is testament to the rapid recent improvement in the youth setup at the West London club.
United will also have to tackle the holders without at least three of their most impressive performers this term. Ten-goal leading scorer John Cofie will sit out both legs of the tie as he recovers from recent knee surgery, while Ravel Morrison – inspiration behind the comeback against Liverpool and perhaps the team’s leading light – will miss the first leg through suspension after picking up a red card on reserve duty last month. England U17 defender and first-choice left-back Tyler Blackett also misses the first leg as a result of indiscipline after being dismissed in the last round at Anfield, although Paul Pogba – also sent off that day – is free to play after serving his one-match ban.
Injury also rules out Zeki Fryers (Blackett’s likely replacement at left-back) and first-years Luke McCullough (groin) and Lee Hendrie (hip), while striker Will Keane is touch and go to start, having only recently made his return from a thigh injury – with Cofie absent and no other natural forward in the squad, the 18 year-old reigning United Young Player of the Year may be pressed into action earlier than would be preferred, having played just the second half in each of the academy’s last two league games.
Those injuries and suspensions, combined with a relatively consistent selection policy in the tournament so far this season, makes it fairly easy to forecast the eleven initially tasked with keeping United’s bid for a record 10th Youth Cup crown on track. The likely spine of the side – Sam Johnstone in goal, captain Tom Thorpe at centre-back, Ryan Tunnicliffe in central midfield and Keane up front – are all England U19 internationals. Michele Fornasier should partner Thorpe in the centre of defence, with that pair flanked by Michael Keane at right-back and Sean McGinty on the left.
Pogba will team up with Tunnicliffe in what must be one of the strongest academy engine rooms in the country, with Larnell Cole – perhaps the squad’s most underrated talent – lining up on the right of midfield and Dutch 16 year-old Gyliano van Velzen taking the left-wing spot. With Will Keane leading the line, the only real question mark comes in who will play the supporting role in what will likely be a 4-4-1-1 formation. Jesse Lingard is the most obvious candidate, having featured in more academy games than any other player this term, but recent strong showings from Welsh starlet Tom Lawrence have given McGuinness another serious option.
So what of our opponents? There’s no-one better placed to give us the low-down on Dermot Drummy’s side than Phil from TheChels.net, who kindly answered our questions:
After winning the competition last year, Chelsea are in the semi-finals again. With a number of youngsters in and around the first team and starring at youth international level as well, is it fair to say the hefty investment in the youth system by Roman Abramovich is starting to come to fruition?
It very much is, but it’s important to understand that investment isn’t as simple as buying players from abroad, as is so often attributed. It’s in the facilities, the coaching, the opportunities given to schoolboys to have day leave from school to get additional time on the field practicing. It’s in expanding the network of scouting both at home and abroad to identify talent as quickly as possible and bring them in to educate them the way the club wants to. We’ve not had a terrible record of bringing players through historically, but the investment in the club since 2003 has taken us to unprecedented levels, and that means the academy has to produce players who can play alongside the very best in the world.
I’ve covered United’s run to the last four elsewhere in this preview, but tell us a bit about Chelsea’s progress through the competition this season.
If I had to use one word to describe it, I’d probably use ‘spirited’. In all but one round we’ve gone behind but come back to win 2-1, and on the other occasion we had our backs to the wall at Sunderland in the first half before a strong comeback in the second. The resolve and self-belief on display has grown round on round and in the Quarter Finals against Watford, you could visibly see that nobody was affected by being a goal down inside ten minutes.
Whereas last year’s team swept all before them and scored freely, this year’s team is stronger mentally, and for what it lacks in offensive firepower, it makes up for in heart and desire.
What sort of line-up and system can we expect to see from the Blues on Sunday?
Typically, the club tries to use a 4-3-3 system throughout the academy, and whatever we see Dermot Drummy adopt will have its roots in that, for sure. However, due to injury and the personnel available, I think we’ll see two defensive minded midfielders, two attacking minded ones, a winger and a striker. It’s more fluid than it would appear on paper but for simplicity’s sake we’ll call it a 4-2-3-1.
Jamal Blackman will be the goalkeeper, with an expected back four of Todd Kane, Tomas Kalas, Rohan Ince and Aziz Deen-Conteh. Nathaniel Chalobah and George Saville protect the midfield, with Josh McEachran and likely Anton Rodgers ahead of them, supporting Bobby Devyne and Milan Lalkovic in attack.
Alternatively, Kane – the youth team’s top goalscorer this season with eight goals (plus two at reserve level) – could be pushed into midfield with Ben Sampayo at right-back; or schoolboy Adam Nditi may get the nod on the left wing.
Which players would you pick out as the stars of the side?
Josh McEachran will grab all the headlines, and for good reason. He’s made fifteen senior appearances this season and is a regular in the England Under-21 squad despite having only turned 18 a month ago. However, there’s also Nathaniel Chalobah, still a schoolboy, who has been a reserve team regular this season and has five goals to his name, with two in the Youth Cup. He captains England Under-17s and can play either in the centre of defence or in midfield. Milan Lalkovic will be the team’s main goal threat and is in fine form for the reserve team, with two goals and four assists in his last four outings.
United are missing some key players, but Chelsea have their absentees as well. Who are they and how keenly will their absence be felt?
For the first leg, we’ll be missing our captain and our most in-form player. Daniel Pappoe was sent off in a reserve fixture against Blackpool and his absence will be felt both physically and from a leadership point of view. Ahead of him, Billy Clifford – a talismanic figure in the Youth Cup so far – will miss both legs after picking up a knee injury. His absence creates the midfield conundrums outlined above.
Long-term absentees also include Philipp Prosenik, James Ashton – who would’ve each played key roles – and Reece Loudon.
What are your impressions of this United side?
It’s very impressive, especially through the spine of the team, and has quality in depth. I think Tom Thorpe is a wonderful prospect at the back, and I don’t need to tell any United fans how good Pogba and Tunnicliffe look. Even without Morrison in attack, you’ve shown that you can more than get by without recognised attackers, even with Keane’s potential return. It’s hard to find a weakness, as you can pass anyone off the park and do battle with anyone physically.
Finally, a prediction – both for Sunday and for the tie as a whole?
It’s going to be close for sure, and for me will come down to whichever team has the best depth players. On paper it might be decided by a McEachran or a Pogba, but on the pitch it’s going to require the effort of more than the starting elevens on Sunday lunchtime, and that’s the charm of things like this. I’m going to go for a very narrow Chelsea win both Sunday and overall, but would not be at all surprised if it went the other way.
Meanwhile I’ll be at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and will be providing my own updates on Twitter as usual, as well as attempting to answer any of your questions in advance of and after the first leg.