The FA Youth Cup returns to Stamford Bridge this week as Adi Viveash’s Under-18s host Arsenal in the first leg of their semi-final clash this evening [Thursday], in a game being screened live on Chelsea TV.
The Academy have had a busy week as the Under-21s, a group in which a bulk of the Youth Cup squad play their regular football, have been in action twice and the youth team won against Bolton at the weekend. It is, says Viveash, not the perfect preparation for the Cup tie but a schedule he is happy to contend with as the different age groups compete for silverware on various fronts.
Speaking to the official Chelsea website ahead of the semi-final, he explains: ‘The preparation isn’t ideal at this stage of the season but it’s good for us to be competitive. It’s great for the players and the staff involved for our Under-21s to be fighting to finish as high as they can in their league.
‘It’s probably been slightly easier for Arsenal to manage what they’re doing in terms of preparing for the game than for us, but we’ve had a similar build-up to the Newcastle game [a 3-2 away win in the last round], with a lot of analysis and working on our game plan.’
The manager admits the introduction of two-legged ties from the semi-final stage of the competition onwards brings new challenges for him as a coach, though his players will be solely focused on their immediate task this evening.
‘As a player you can only think about the game in front of you and we’re focusing fully on the first leg. If you get caught ahead of yourselves then it takes away from the first game and we know if we don’t do our job at the Bridge then there won’t be a second leg to contest.
‘We saw that against Blackburn when we won the competition in 2012, where we were exceptional in the first leg and finished the final there and then. I’m the only person that has thought about both games and I have to do that because it’s my job.’
The young Gunners come into the last four on the back of wins against Charlton and Everton, though have had an indifferent campaign across both Under-21 and youth team age groups. However, as Viveash points out, their strength in the cup competitions remains impressive.
‘Their best team only comes together for the Youth Cup and the UEFA Youth League [where they, like Dermot Drummy’s Chelsea Under-19s, reached the quarter-finals]. In the Under-18s their team has changed a lot this season, much like ours, with a lot of schoolboys involved, but in the Youth Cup they play their best team and their best team is very strong.
‘They can play a couple of different styles, either going with a high press and really going after you, or filtering into a 4-5-1 and making it extremely tight. I wouldn’t be surprised if they followed the second approach in the first leg and were then more expansive at home in the second leg, so I’m expecting a cagey game tonight but we’re at home and we’re going to try to dominate the game and the tempo.
‘They have players who can cause us a lot of damage and that is what we have to be aware of but if we do our jobs properly both on and off the ball then we have a team good enough to give anyone problems.’
While schoolboy striker Dominic Solanke has deservedly won many of the plaudits en route to the semi-final stage, after six goals in four games in the competition so far, there are a host of attacking options at Viveash’s disposal.
‘We have five or six of the best attacking players in the country at Under-18 level, with the likes of Solanke, Alex Kiwomya, Izzy Brown, Jeremie Boga, Charly Musonda, Reece Mitchell and Kasey Palmer. We have good players in all the positions but the forwards are the ones who get the headlines. They all bring something different and if you can get them fitting in together then you have a very exciting, potent force.’
The nature of the Youth Cup means that most players only get two opportunities to taste glory and, for the second year scholars among the group, this represents their final chance to lift the prestigious silverware. It is those senior members of the team that Viveash will be relying upon to demonstrate their experience and secure a place in the final against Fulham.
‘At this stage of the competition you want your senior players to really lead and that’s what I need. You look to people like Ruben Loftus-Cheek (pictured below) as our captain, who leads in a different way with the way that he plays, Fankaty Dabo, Andreas Christensen, Jordan Houghton and Mitchell Beeney, who’s been with the first team travelling in the Champions League this season.
‘We obviously need our experienced players to have big nights for us to get the positive result that we want but sometimes in these semi-finals it’s people out of the limelight that actually do something special. We’ve got a nice balance and they all have that steely determination to succeed, which is what playing for this club means.
‘After the win at Cardiff [in the fifth round] I felt we had momentum building and then we had a brilliant result at Newcastle. I don’t know think any of the other semi-finalists would have won that game from the position we were in and that has given massive belief to the group.’
Stamford Bridge has played host to a thrilling knockout contest once already this week and it is from that victory for the first team over Paris Saint-Germain that Viveash is hoping his own youngsters can draw inspiration.
‘It doesn’t get much better than that at Stamford Bridge and I’m sure some of the boys were watching and thinking “we’re out on here in two days”. We’ve prepared a team that is a very good, competitive side and it’s a mouth-watering London derby. They don’t come any bigger.’
– Tickets for the game are priced £5 for adults and £3 for juniors/seniors and are now only on sale in person at the box office until 4pm. Kick off is 7.05pm.
– Chelsea TV’s live coverage with exclusive build-up begin at 6.30pm.
– Click for ticket information for the second leg at the Emirates Stadium next week.