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Cup half full - FA Youth Cup Final 1st leg vs. Chelsea


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Last night saw Tony McAndrew’s young charges take on Chelsea in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup at Villa Park. A big game for the youngsters and a chance to emulate the class of 2002, how would they fair under the bright lights of Villa Park?

If Kevin McDonald’s all-conquering reserve side have been this season’s invincibles, I think it’s fair to say that this team have been the impossibles.

Dismissed by pretty much everyone at the start of the season as a slightly less impressive crop than those of recent years, they’ve developed from a stuttering start to a team full of energy and commitment and shown us that despite the loss of their best player in Gary Gardner, there’s actually no shortage of talent in this years group.

The semi-final win against Newcastle was a little unexpected, but then few observers thought we’d beat West Brom in the fourth round, that we’ve come this far reflects just how strong the will to succeed is within the team.

Our opponents are the opposite, feted and heralded as the first of Chelsea’s bright new generation, they’re an expensively assembled collection of some of the worlds brightest talents and in reaching the final, they’d scored sixteen goals and conceded only one.

Villa the underdogs then, unfancied and against the odds - it suits this team down to the ground.

The car park was full at half six and although the big crowd we’d hoped for didn’t materialise there still looked to be around two or three thousand people in the ground at kick-off. Ray Wilkins was as the door as I came in and he looked none too happy at Birmingham’s grey rainy outlook, he never does look particularly happy, but I’d agree with him on this one – the game was played in a steady downpour that never showed any signs of relenting.

In line with the big occasion, there was a full programme on offer (£2!), the E-on/FA cup banner was laid out on the centre circle and the Chelsea subs were warming up with big headphones hanging around their necks.

Villa lined up with Benjamin Siegrist in goal, a back four from left to right of Deeney, Williams, Devine and Berry, the midfield; Roberts, Blythe, Nelson-Addy and Carruthers and Kofi Poyser up front with Ryan Simmonds.

The start was scrappy enough, played out at a frenetic pace as both sides set about finding a rhythm and imposing themselves, but it was Chelsea who settled first.

They had a couple of long range shots on goal and started to pass the ball around well, a shot from the left forced a save from Siegrist and the games first corner and from that they hit the join of post and bar; Mitrovic with the far post header.

That only lifted them further and they penned us in a bit – they were really moving the ball well and showing signs of being a match for their reputation. Things didn’t look too good.

It took fifteen minutes before we really threatened, a mistake by their big number three and an over-hit wayward backpass from twenty-five yards out resulting in a corner for us.

It proved a lucky break, the corner came in and as cleared, but only as far as Deeney who put a deep cross in to the far post, Devine got it and his looping header sailed over the Chelsea keeper and into the back of the net to put us one-nil up.

The celebrations were barely over when Chelsea went straight down the other end and rattled our bar again.

Our tails were up though and we started to creep into the game, Carruthers played a lovely ball from the right hand side that Poyser almost got his head on and Simmonds pressured the right back into a mistake which provided Nelson-Addy the opportunity to hammer the ball a long way wide from distance.

Chelsea were still very much involved however and we were left exposed on the break and perhaps lucky that their number eight shot when a pass might have been on. It still took a good stop from Siegrist to keep him out.

Caruthers and Simmonds cleverly opened Chelsea up next, Carruthers playing a good ball in to Simmonds then running on to his imaginative back heel – alas the finish didn’t match the build up and Carruthers put the ball high over the bar.

Poyser almost wriggled through and forced a shot in at the near post that was well blocked by the Chelsea keeper.

The half ended with us a goal ahead and looking much more confident, Chelsea had showed that they were a quality outfit and their efficient and controlled use of the ball was straight out of their first teams handbook, but we’d forced our way into it through sheer hard work and determination and had gone from looking lucky to likely.

We came out five minutes early at half time and interrupted the keepy-uppy contest; which was probably for the best – three should not be enough to win you four match tickets, shame on you young people of Birmingham.

Nathan Delfouneso was in attendance and as at every youth game this year busily shaking hands, signing autographs and having his picture taken with fans – he’s in danger of giving footballers a good name.

Chelsea eventually decided to join us and we were back in action for a more even second half.

Villa took first go at changing the scoreline with Devine lining up a twenty five yard volley from a dropping ball, in his head I’d imagine it was beautifully launched into the top corner, sadly in reality it was a throw in.

Chelsea responded with a couple of long efforts of their own which whilst they were closer than our effort perhaps represented their frustration at not being able to break through our strong defence.

Tempers were starting to rise as players tired, with Chelsea not putting the ball out when we had a player down then getting away with a couple of very heavy challenges on Carruthers.

It was Carruthers who was booked eventually, getting a bit involved with Chelsea’s number seven and going in to a challenge a bit too strongly for the referees liking.

Chelsea pressed periodically, with Mitrovic an inch away from getting his toe onto a skidding cross.

Carruthers continued to pick up lumps as Chelsea took turns giving him a kick or two, perhaps sensing that they might be able to tempt him into a second yellow – he did well in remaining relatively restrained.

A narrow miss for Villa on the hour as Devine, shepherding the ball back to Siegrist, slipped in his own box and allowed Mitrovic to pick the ball up on the corner of our six yard box, he cut the ball back to their number seven who hammered a shot goalwards with Siegrist beaten – a great bit of defending by Berry saw him head the shot off the line.

Sadly we couldn’t quite hold on to that clean sheet. Chelsea picked up a free kick around twenty five yards out and their big Dutch centre half, Bruma (who has already appeared for their first team) stepped up to take it.

Villa put a good sized wall of five or six players in place and Chelsea put three or four of their own in it too. It looked like a rush hour bus stop by the time Bruma curled it over the top of them and into the Villa goal and while it was a very good free kick the keeper might have done better and you’d wonder if he was unsighted by the crowd scene on the edge of our box.

One each and the celebration in front of our dugout was perhaps a little unnecessary. I suspect it was just a coincidence as there were a group of Chelsea fans just behind there, but his manager was kind enough to apologise to McAndrew regardless – good to see after the scenes last time these two played a semi-final here.

Players were now starting to tire and the last twenty minutes were filled with cramped youngsters getting their legs stretched by team mates, it’s fair to say both teams gave it their all.

Both sides made substitutions with what sounded like Donnie Darko coming on up front for us in replacement of Simmonds, I couldn’t see a similar name on the back of our programme so I’m going to stick with that until I figure it out.

Our own big Dutchman, Arsenio Halfhuid also joined the front line, coming on for Kofi Poyser.

Villa broke down the right hand side after the referee awarded us a throw in then let Chelsea take it, Carruthers skipped by the first defender then was fouled on the edge of the box. The free kick came to nothing though.

Darko then feinted and dodged his way through two defenders, raced down the middle of the Chelsea defence and with a shot on he attempted to slip Tomos Roberts in on his left but slightly over hit the pass. I have no doubt that in an alternate reality he hammered it home but that this single act ended all life in the tangent universe as we know it – at least that’s what Frank told me.

Chelsea once again troubled our woodwork; this time their excellent number 7 shooting from distance and clipping a post with Siegrist beaten.

With the board for four minutes long since raised Villa hoisted a final free kick into the Chelsea box, alas despite the best efforts of our centre backs it came to nothing and the referee blew time on a fascinating and balanced cup-tie.

Chelsea have undeniable ability and quality, we have our share, but more than that we have a work rate and a spirit that could yet see us triumph. This is cup football and the second leg promises to be something special. It will be on the FA’s website on Tuesday and well worth a watch.

Some ratings:

Siegrist (7): Looked more assured than in the last round. He’s an excellent shot stopper and communicates well for a young keeper, he still needs to work on dominating his penalty area but he’s plenty of time for that. I look forward to seeing him in the reserves next season.

Berry (7): I was impressed by his determination and his defensive ability, especially since he’s only been converted to defence this season. He worked his socks off and got forward as often as he could.

Devine (7): The defence is the strength of this team and Daniel is a leader in there, he stood up to everything Chelsea threw at him and managed to score our goal. He’ll look back on tonight fondly.

Williams (7): Looked solid and showed a reasonably ability to pass his way out of trouble. He was a big part of our efforts in restricting Chelsea and can be pleased with his performance.

Deeney (8): Rugged in the tackle, quick enough and able to make the angles for good balls down the line. He’s a player I like the look of a lot and I think we’ll hear more from him in future. (Although I’m usually wrong so hopefully this isn’t the last we see of him!)

Carruthers (8): Animal! I had him down as silky but tonight he showed he’s spiky too. I didn’t realise he had this sort of grit in his locker. He still showed his quality on the ball but added a real determination to take the fight to Chelsea. He’s blossomed this year since Gardner was injured and looks a real prospect – I think the two of them will make next years team one to watch.

Blythe (7): Made Chelsea’s midfield feel like the lush expanses of Villa Park were just six feet wide, he never gave them a moments peace and seemed to be in the way of every attack. His work off the ball is fantastic, the next challenge for him is to show us he can create as well as destroy.

Nelson-Addy (7): Not seen much of him before but I liked what I saw, he’s a Duracell bunny with a bundle of energy and once he figures out how and when to use it I think we’ll have a good player on our hands.

Roberts (7): In the first half when we looked under the cosh it was Roberts that dragged us back in to it. He repeatedly ran at the right full back and created havoc down Chelsea’s right flank. He tired a bit in the second half but his first half was the best I’ve seen from him.

Simmonds (7): Buzzed around nicely and linked things up, I’d like to see him then get into positions where he can do real damage, but his work rate is faultless and he links play very well. We need him on form if we’re to win the second leg.

Poyser (7): Against two big, accomplished centre halves I think he lead the line really well, competed for everything in the air and ran the channels tirelessly. I’d like to see him add a bit more goal threat to all hard work though.

Subs

Darko (7): I now know that he’s called Darius Darkin, and I’d have to say he looked a good prospect. Quick and good with the ball he’s a useful player to have on the bench.

Halfhuid (6): Never really had a chance to get involved in the ten minutes he was on. He’ll be hoping for a bit longer in the second leg.

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