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NextGen Series semi-final: Chelsea edge 4-3 thriller against Arsenal

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Chelsea will play either Aston Villa or Sporting Lisbon in the final after a Lewis Baker goal in extra-time stopped an Arsenal comeback.

Arsenal certainly looked the better from early on. Chelsea were the team trying to pass the ball around on a woeful pitch in Como which was not up to the standards we would have hoped to see the crème de la crème of European youth football talent face off.

Arsenal adapted to the conditions better than Chelsea with a direct and high pressing style that in the opening five minutes almost gave them their just rewards.

Chelsea’s attempts at passing the ball around at the back were found wanting when goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney had his first of many disappointing moments with the ball at his feet when his miskicked clearance fell straight at the feet of Arsenal forward Serge Gnabry; but the German youngster could only fire straight at the thankful stopper.

Chelsea had their first attempt of the half on nine minutes when Islam Feruz slammed a shot from 25 yards that zipped just wide of the left-hand post of Dejan Alliyev.

Arsenal however continued to dominate with Nico Yennaris breaking down the play in the middle of the park while Kristoffer Olsson was pulling the strings with some excellent passing.

Chelsea’s high line continued to cause them problems when Beeney did well to deny Chuba Akpom down low from a cutting Olsson pass but just moments later there was nothing Chelsea could do to stop Arsenal taking the lead.

Serge Gnabry split the defence in half with a scything ball to play in the attacking full back Hector Bellerin; who cut the ball back for Akpom to fire home into an empty net.

Chelsea went close from a free kick on 25 minutes before the last 20 of the first half was victim to injury problems as the youngsters struggled with the hard and potholed pitch; with Adam Nditi twisting his ankle and being replaced by Connor Hunte.

The second half however started at some pace for Chelsea with 17-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek dominating proceedings from the middle of the park and it did not take them long to grab the game by the scruff of the neck.

Substitute Hunte went on a searching run down the left and skipped on unchallenged before cutting back to Loftus-Cheek; who was brought down by Gnabry in the box.

Lewis Baker stepped up to take the resultant penalty which was excellently saved by Aliyev in the Arsenal goal but Feruz slid in to score his seventh of the competition and go top of the goalscoring charts ahead of Mikey Drennan of Aston Villa.

Arsenal had a chance minutes later when Kyle Ebecillio turned and shot at the outstretched Beeney and then Kristoffer Olsson missed a golden opportunity to regain the lead when he blazed over from 12 yards.

That was to be punished minutes later when captain Baker dispossessed Akpom 45 yards out from goal and hit a speculative shot. It hit an awkward bounce and Aliyev failed to get anything behind the ball as he let it slip underneath him as Chelsea took a deserved lead.

It was soon 3-1. This time it was Martin Angha at fault. He showed England junior 100m champion Alex Kiwomya down the line and he was punished with a blistering breakaway and emphatic cut-back that was turned in by Jeremie Boga at the far post.

Chelsea stayed in control but when Dermot Drummy decided to remove Loftus-Cheek and Boga from the action things started to go awry. Gnabry and Olsson both had efforts at goal before an 86th minute cross from substitute Zak Ansah was turned in by Akpom for his and Arsenal’s second.

Then, in the 89th minute Chelsea were truly made to pay for their dubious substitutions when sustained pressure saw Bellerin slide in Gnabry down the right who cut on to his left foot before steering a composed effort past Beeney into the back of the net to complete a dramatic turnaround and take the game into extra-time.

Chelsea had an early opportunity to take the lead in the opening seconds of added time but Kiwomya opted wrongly to shoot rather than square the ball for a simple tap-in for Feruz.

Chelsea continued to have the better opportunities and in the 98th minute a deft pass from John Swift played in Feruz but he could not quite get the contact needed on his header to trouble Aliyev.

The game simmered in the second half of extra time with both sides suffering from the effects of their long day at the office and the game seemed to be destined for penalties.

However just moments after a mix-up between Beeney and defender Daniel Pappoe a counter-attack from Chelsea saw Swift use his trickery to escape the clutches of the covering Olsson before cutting the ball back for the captain Baker to score the winning goal and take Chelsea into the final.

image: © Jason Bagley

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