It may not have been a good year for Premier League clubs in the Champions League but England’s dominance at a younger age level will be clear on Easter Monday when Chelsea take on Aston Villa in the NextGen Series final.
Two English Under-19 sides have already been involved in one of the 24-team tournament’s outstanding games, Chelsea knocking out Arsenal in Friday’s thrilling semi-final.
The London rivals shared seven goals in the Giuseppe Sinigaglia stadium in Como, the Blues trailing by a single strike at the break before hitting their stride. Goals from Islam Feruz, Lewis Baker and Jeremie Boga left Arsenal in need of a recovery which they mounted inside the final 10 minutes of normal time. Baker struck again in extra time to seal victory in a match that left manager Dermot Drummy with plenty to discuss.
‘I was really pleased to be involved in a very high-level game,’ he says.
‘There were two good teams playing attractive, attacking football and all aspects of football were there in that game – from being 1-0 down and then fighting back in the second half to take a lead, to then loosing that lead in the last two minutes and being dead on our feet, to then regrouping and refocusing and getting that second wind to win it 4-3.
‘So I am pleased with all the staff that worked continuously very hard and I am pleased for the Academy, but we haven’t won it, we have got to the final and we have to play against Villa which will be a tough game.’
Chelsea played against an Arsenal side notably older in terms of average age and also faced them on an uneven pitch, but Drummy praised his players for coming to terms with difficulties, as was evident from the positive way they began the second half.
‘In the first half we were trying to play out but we didn’t adjust to the pitch,’ he says, ‘but the boys adjusted their touch in the second half and apart from the goal from Lewis’s long-range shot, the move that won the penalty was made up from intricate passing and so were the other two goals.
‘It isn’t an easy pitch to play quick, penetrating football on. It is more suited to second-phase percentage football which we don’t play, so credit to the boys, they were outstanding in adapting and trying to play with the philosophy of the club which is a creative 4-3-3 through the thirds of the pitch.
‘I said to them at half-time it is not a massive deficit, we can get it back but you have to believe in yourselves. I pushed Jeremie Boga higher up the pitch because he didn’t link enough with Islam Feruz in the first half and we didn’t go in behind the Arsenal lines enough, but we did that second half and you have to keep believing in what you are doing.’
Drummy acknowledges the substitutions made when his side were leading would not have looked good had the game been lost but it was one of the players introduced, John Swift, who made the decisive goal.
The manager also had praise for the physical levels shown by Alex Kiwomya over the 120 minutes and the hour he was given by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, both players only arriving at the team’s hotel from England duty three hours before kick-off. Unfortunately Adam Nditi was forced off before half-time with an injury which is being assessed.
Two days of rest and preparation lie ahead for the squad before lining up in the same stadium against an Aston Villa side who conquered Sporting Lisbon after extra time. They will be selected by former Chelsea player Tony McAndrew.
In 2010 Chelsea Under-18s beat Villa to win the FA Youth Cup. The coaches were the same.
‘It does bring memories back,’ admits Drummy.
‘Tony is a lovely fella and I have a lot of respect for him and Villa’s academy which over the years produces players who play in the Premier League.
‘They have a wonderful ethic so I am really looking forward to facing them and I am sure Tony and I will have a beer, but I hope he is playing!
‘I think it will be a good final. We know no other way to play than creative football but the boys must make the decisions on the pitch. It is vitally important to develop football intelligence along with a winning mentality. It is not enough just to have a big heart.
‘Villa are predominantly an English side and so are we. We have a couple of foreign boys that add to it but in England we have learned from the influx of foreign players over the years. Players have learned about technical ability and I think the coaches have learned too so it is onwards and upwards for the future of English football. It is in a good place.’
– Monday’s final can be seen at 5pm (UK time) on Eurosport and 8pm on Chelsea TV.