FA Youth Cup- Semi Final, 1st Leg
Chelsea 2 (Colkett 59, Kiwomya 66) Arsenal 1 (Akpom 56)
By Jeorge Bird @ Stamford Bridge
Arsenal U18s face an uphill struggle if they are to reach their first FA Youth Cup Final since 2009 after they were beaten by Chelsea in the first leg of their Semi-Final tie this evening.
The young Gunners took the lead courtesy of a fine strike from Chuba Akpom, but Chelsea levelled just three minutes later before Alex Kiwomya scored what could prove to be a crucial goal as he put the hosts ahead. As in several of the previous rounds, Arsenal were hugely reliant on goalkeeper Josh Vickers to keep the opposition at bay, but they struggled to fully function as an attacking force, with midfielder Gedion Zelalem particularly culpable.
Zelalem’s carelessness in possession led to Chelsea’s opener, which was scored by Charlie Colkett, and the German lost the ball again shortly afterwards, prompting his replacement by Jack Jebb. Julio Pleguezuelo and Ainsley Maitland-Niles did, however, come out of the game with some credit, along with Vickers and Akpom, although this was far from a vintage display from an Arsenal side who were at times swamped by Chelsea’s dominance in midfield.
The tie is not over, especially when the youth teams’ immaculate record at Emirates Stadium is taken into account, but coach Carl Laraman will want to see much more from his side next Thursday, with Arsenal having struggled to gain any sort of foothold in this encounter.
The team line-up was the expected one, with Zelalem being preferred over Jebb. In hindsight, that was perhaps the wrong decision to make.
subs: Jebb (for Zelalem, 66). Not used: Huddart, O’Connor, Dobson, Lipman.
Arsenal had some defending to do in the early stages, with Vickers being called into action for the first time as he gathered a cross from Fankaty Dabo.
Maitland-Niles, who has been so impressive recently, then did well to manoeuvre some space for himself at the other end, but he dragged his shot wide of the far post before Chelsea squandered an inviting opportunity when Colkett flicked the ball into the path of Izzy Brown, who made the mistake of electing to pass instead of going for goal, with Arsenal eventually clearing their lines.
Chelsea were dominant throughout the first-half, particularly in terms of their midfield play. Arsenal’s approach was rather stagnant in contrast, but most of the openings that they did create fell to Akpom. The striker struck a shot into the side-netting, before Alex Iwobi’s header was tipped over the crossbar for a corner.
Chelsea’s dominance continued after the interval, with the game suddenly becoming rather more open. Brown saw his shot held after Arsenal’s hesitancy saw them hustled out of possession, then Jordan Houghton shot over after Pleguezuelo’s header fell invitingly into his path.
Chelsea goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney then played the ball mistakenly into the path of Dan Crowley in front of goal, but the midfielder couldn’t capitalise. The intensity of the game had increased greatly, with Vickers then making a superb double save in quick succession to deny Colkett and Kiwomya.
Arsenal were struggling to create chances with any sort of regularity, and their usual brand of passing football was surprisingly absent, but what good openings they did muster came courtesy of Akpom, with the striker attempting a shot from a difficult angle which was saved.
Arsenal’s lack of ingenuity seemed set to cost them, but then they temporarily awoke from their slumber. Maitland-Niles played a perceptive pass straight into the path of Akpom, who beat Beeney with a well-placed finish. With the travelling Arsenal supporters jubilant and Akpom evidently delighted to have found the net, you forgot that this was a youth-team game, albeit just for a moment.
With their lead, albeit somewhat fortunately, intact, Arsenal were now faced with the task of seeing the game out for the remaining 34 minutes. Largely owing to the carelessness of Zelalem, they held out for just three minutes. Zelalem, not for the first or last time, lost possession, and, although Arsenal initially managed to clear the danger, the ball eventually fell to Colkett, who finished well to equalise.
Zelalem didn’t learn from his mistake, as he squandered possession again. Thankfully, this time the outcome wasn’t quite so damning, with Vickers earning his team-mate a reprieve as he denied Brown.
It was only a temporary respite, however, as Chelsea soon took the lead. The effective Ruben Loftus-Cheek clipped the ball forwards. Vickers kept out Dominic Solanke’s header, but the ball fell into the path of Kiwomya, whose overhead kick was enough to beat the Arsenal goalkeeper.
Jebb, not before time, was then introduced in place of Zelalem. The midfielder immediately got to work, playing a good pass into the path of his long-time colleague Akpom, who couldn’t quite get the ball under control.
Arsenal had threatened intermittently, but in the end they were perhaps thankful to depart Stamford Bridge with just a one-goal deficit. Right-back Ola Aina wasted a good chance following a quick breakaway, with Vickers then making two more excellent stops. The goalkeeper, along with fellow second-years Iwobi and Glen Kamara, will surely be rewarded with a professional contract at the end of the campaign.
Maitland-Niles sent an effort well wide in the closing stages, but Arsenal will be all too aware that, if they are to progress to the Final, it will require an immense improvement from tonight. They flickered only ever so often in an attacking sense, with Akpom impressing despite often receiving little support from the midfield, whilst the defensive frailties that seem to plague the club at all levels were once again in evidence here.
This was another example of Arsenal being somewhat overrun by a major side at youth level, with the defeat put into even further perspective by the fact that Chelsea were without arguably their most impressive starlet in Jeremie Boga.
Vickers, as he has been throughout this run, was outstanding, but he will need his team-mates to perform similar heroics in the second leg if they are to reach the Final against Fulham.