A fabulously entertaining NextGen Series semi-final that ebbed and flowed was won late in extra time by the Chelsea Under-19s.
Having beaten Barcelona and Juventus in the previous two rounds, it was a London derby for Dermot Drummy’s side on the banks of Lake Como in Italy, and it was Arsenal who were in front at half-time.
But the young Blues showed quality and strength of character and were 3-1 ahead just past the hour. Islam Feruz (pictured) went clear as tournament topscorer when he turned in a saved penalty before Lewis Baker from range and Jeremie Boga from close in added to the tally.
But Arsenal scored twice in the last 10 minutes of normal time to extend the contest. However the Gunners sting seemed to have been drawn by the effort of their late recovery and it was Chelsea who created the extra-time chances – Baker with his second of the game and fourth in the last two NextGen matches winning it.
Chelsea will now play the winners of Friday evening’s match between Sporting Lisbon and Aston Villa in Monday evening’s Final.
There were two changes from the side that started the 4-1 win over Juventus in the previous round.
With Jamal Blackman and Nathan Ake involved in first team training back in London, Mitchell Beeney, who had played five of the eight previous NextGen games, was in goal. Daniel Pappoe came in to central defence.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek who had been on the bench for England Under-19s yesterday and Alex Kiwomya who had come on with 69 minutes played of what was an 80-minute international, both started. They, along with substitute Charlie Colkett who began the England game, had flown to Italy this morning.
It was the first appearance by Chelsea in the last four of this European competition and on a playing surface that was disappointingly bumpy, the start was understandably a tentative one.
The Blues had to face an early free-kick in a dangerous spot after Alex Davey had fouled following a misplaced pass by Andreas Christensen. Thomas Eisfield fired wide.
A few signs of nerves in the performance early on continued but we survived a scare when Beeney in goal kicked out to Arsenal’s Serge Gnarby, but the keeper was in the right place to save both Gnarby’s shot and a follow-up effort.
With 10 minutes played Chelsea went for the target for the first time, Feruz’s shot from outside the area extending Denyan Iliev but flying the wrong side of the post. The Scotland Under-21 centre-forward and Jeremie Boga almost bundled their way through soon after but the Arsenal keeper smothered as the offside flag went up anyway.
Christensen was the first played booked, tugging back Nico Yennaris who was turning away from the right-back on halfway.
That was a minute before Arsenal’s 16th-minute opener. The Gunners had sprung forward in wide areas already in the game and this time Gnabry’s pass out to the right gave Hector Bellerin plenty of time to cross low. Chuba Akpom couldn’t really miss.
On 23 minutes there was a foul on Boga over 30 yards out. Baker struck his shot sweetly and many in the stadium thought it was on its way in. Instead the ball cleared the post by a matter of inches.
Nditi then miss-hit a difficult volleying chance at the far post after good work by Boga, Loftus-Cheek and Kiwomya.
Chelsea were improving with the physically imposing Loftus-Cheek increasingly on the ball in the centre of the park. He helped Kiwomya win a corner which the keeper spilled but was rescued as Feruz was judged to have fouled him.
The booking count evened up soon after when Feruz was fouled by Isaac Hayden.
The closing stages of the first half were punctuated by stoppages for treatment. One ended up with a Chelsea substitution. Nditi had needed attention a couple of minutes earlier but on 42 minutes he could no longer continue so schoolboy Connor Hunte came on.
The new arrival was soon involved but after a thrillingly skilful break down the centre by Feruz and Boga, Hunte had unfortunately drifted offside.
There was purpose about Chelsea’s second-half display from the off. The belief was there to patiently play our football and key creative force Boga was making things happens.
The 16-year-old from France was involved before Hunte skinned the Arsenal right flank five minutes into the half. The winger drilled the ball low across the area and Loftus-Cheek was poised to score when bundled down from behind by Gnarby who was booked.
A more severe punishment was the penalty awarded to Chelsea, which Baker struck firmly but Iliev saved very well. Islam Feruz is nothing if not sharp however and he reacted to sweep the loose ball home from a tight angle. It was his seventh NextGen goal.
Arsenal looked to restore their lead and Pappoe, who believed he had been harshly booked moments before, stood strong and defended well to bring an Akpom attack to an end, but the Gunners were gaining the upper hand again and Olsson wasted a great chance for them when he blazed over.
If Baker’s confidence had been affected by his saved penalty, there was no sign of it as he took aim from a long, long way out with an hour of the game gone. The ball bounced and Iliev was defeated. Chelsea were in the lead.
The tide had truly turned and the third goal came on 64 minutes. Loftus-Cheek stroked the ball out to the right where it was Kiwomya’s turn to leave the full-back for dead. Boga was the player there at the far post to score when the cross was delivered on cue.
Arsenal were not defeated yet however and Olsson was not far away with a shot wide, but the Blues, who had replaced midfielders Loftus-Cheek and Boga with Tika Musonda and John Swift were for the most part looking solid in holding on to the advantage, without threatening to add to it.
But then just inside the final 10 minutes, substitute Zak Ansah was allowed to deliver from the right again into the six-yard box and Akpom bundled in for his second of the game.
The Gunners made it 3-3 with 88 minutes on the clock and this time it was a moment of individual quality from Gnarby – making space for himself and from a wide angle firing in off the far post.
Chelsea were understandably shaken but negotiated some late Arsenal pressure. There would be 30 minutes more.
The Blues could have gone back ahead within seconds of the restart but Kiwomya cutting in fired across the goal and wide with Feruz waiting in the centre. Substitute Swift almost carved a way through from the same side soon after. Arsenal cleared but it was a sign of what was to come.
There followed a heading chance for Feruz after Baker swung a ball over but he didn’t quite have the inches. It was Chelsea making the running now but there was no break through in the first 15-minute period.
Arsenal barely threatened in that half of extra time and a long shot five minutes into the second period was always travelling over. By this stage the pace of the game was dropping like the lakeside temperature on this clear day.
A game of this standard didn’t deserve to be decided by a penalty shoot-out and thankfully that was not to be the case. Much credit for the winner goes to Swift who initially with his back to goal and near the byline inside the box, showed great close control and then the presence to pick out Baker for a close-range, joyous blast into the net.
This time Chelsea negotiated the four minutes left to play.
Chelsea Mitchell Beeney; Andreas Christensen, Alex Davey, Daniel Pappoe, Kevin Wright; Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Tika Musonda 70), Jeremie Boga, Lewis Baker (c); Alex Kiwomya, Islam Feruz, Adam Nditi (Connor Hunte 42).
Unused subs: Ben Killip, Fankaty Dabo, Dion Conroy, , John Swift, Charlie Colkett.
Arsenal Denyan Iliev; Hector Bellerin, Isaac Hayden, Saed Hajrovic, Martin Angha (Ormonde-Ottewill 67); Nico Yennaris, Mats Kristoffer Olsson; Kyle Ebecilio (Ainsley Maitland-Niles 106), Serge Gnabry, Thomas Eisfeld (Zak Ansah 67); Chuba Akpom.
Unused subs: Josh Vickers, Alex Iwobi, Alfred Mugabo, Jack Jebb.