That the Chelsea Under-19 team held their nerve and maintained their way of playing, despite being 1-0 to Arsenal at half-time in the NextGen semi-final, came as no surprise to anyone used to watching this group of players in action.
Staging comebacks has been one of their hallmarks in the last couple of seasons, not least in the FA Youth Cup with a win at Nottingham Forest last season having been 3-0 down at the break catching the eye, followed this campaign when a two-goal deficit at Charlton with 25 minutes to play was turned into a victory.
It is a point emphasised by winger Alex Kiwomya as he reflects on Friday’s win over the Gunners in Italy. It is clear the team always had faith they would recover from an early goal conceded, and even when Arsenal mounted a fight-back of their own late on, it was Chelsea who kicked for the line in extra time and were rewarded with a place in Monday evening’s final.
‘Most of the players played in the Youth Cup last year and this year and the team has really gelled together,’ Kiwomya tells the official Chelsea website.
‘Even if we go behind we know that if we try our hardest and believe, we can do it. It is all down to belief.
‘The semi-final was good. We could have put the game to bed earlier when we were 3-1 up but that is how football is, it’s unpredictable, but after going to 3-3 we were able to work hard and grind it out for the last goal to see us through. There were some great goals and we were playing well.’
The 16-year-old is one of the younger players who became involved in Chelsea’s NextGen debut campaign as more senior squad members such as Lucas Piazon, Thorgan Hazard and Patrick Bamford went out on loan.
In the group stage he was a sub in two games against Norwegian side Molde before starting and scoring in the impressive draw away to Ajax, and then playing a big part in the knockout victories over Barcelona and Juventus. He has three NextGen goals to his name.
‘Against Barcelona it was a bit intimidating when we went down to the ground at first but after we got on the pitch it was okay,’ he reports.
‘Going down to 10 men was hard but the team spirit stayed together. With 10 men there is a lot more demands on fitness because the wingers have to tuck in when you are playing without someone in both the no.9 and the no.10 positions, just with a no.10.
‘Also when you play with 10 men the other team want to attack more so their full-backs push on, so you are tracking back a lot more than you would with 11 v 11.’
That it was Chelsea who went on to score a late second goal against the Spaniards makes it all the more impressive. In that match and the 4-1 win over Juventus the young Blues were clearly a match for the opposition when it came to technique.
‘I think because we work on it a lot in training every day, week in week out – technical, technical, technical, it is paying off now,’ emphasises Kiwomya.
‘We were very confident going into the Juventus game because it was on our home turf and I think it showed. We scored some amazing goals.’
After Friday’s semi-final in Como, the coach of Arsenal’s NextGen side Terry Burton said: ‘Kiwomya caused us a problem for most of the game and we never quite got to grips with that.’
Such words are signs of development for a Chelsea youngster who caught the eye more as pacy impact player last season. Despite only arriving in Italy on the morning of the semi-final having been on England Under-17 duty, Dermot Drummy was able to use him for the full game against Arsenal, extra time included.
‘I am more a 90-minute player now and the coaches have done that well because last year my fitness wasn’t very good,’ says Kiwomya who joined the Academy in 2010.
‘I was able to score goals but not last as long as I do now. It is really improving.
‘I came to Chelsea as a no.9 and I am still a no.9 but I am playing wing and developing my back-to-goal play, cutting in off the right onto my left foot. When I came here my left foot wasn’t great and now I am confident with it and everything has just improved. It has given me a lot more confidence coming here and I have improved technically as well.’
The son of former professional Andy Kiwomya and nephew of ex-Ipswich and Arsenal striker Chris, who has recently been given his first manager’s job at Notts County, Alex enjoyed plenty of good influence early on.
‘I am happy for my uncle, he deserves to be where he is because he has been working really hard.
‘My family really loves football and have done well in it and them giving me advice has really got me where I am now. Going out with my dad training while everyone else was having fun is paying off and I am really grateful.
‘They will be watching the final. They are always watching my games.’
Chelsea versus Aston Villa in the NextGen final kicks-off at 5pm UK time on Monday. It can be seen in full on Chelsea TV from 8pm.