Chelsea fans still moping after the Champions League quarter‑final first‑leg defeat by Manchester United might have drawn succour from a trip back to Stamford Bridge for this FA Youth Cup semi-final first leg. United were again the visitors: this time they departed beaten 3-2 and for periods were outplayed by an expertly groomed collection of Chelsea juniors.
Roman Abramovich was among those at the Bridge seeking encouragement before the European second leg this week and the Chelsea owner's customary expression of quizzical gloom may have been lifted by a fine first half from his club's reigning Youth Cup champions during which they opened up a two-goal lead and looked not just physically but tactically superior to a United team making their first appearance at this stage since 2007. It did not last long. United's spirited second‑half rally led by the languid but tenaciously skilled Paul Pogba during which they scored twice, leaves them perhaps the better placed in the tie.
Chelsea started like a well-oiled machine, driven on by Josh McEachran playing an advanced position behind the front three. Milan Lalkovic almost scored after four minutes, drawing a fine save from Sam Johnstone with a close‑range header. Missing the suspended Ravel Morrison, United looked less fluid going forward and were outmuscled in the central area by Rohan Ince, by some distance the most physically imposing youth on show, alongside the neat George Saville.
Chelsea's pressure paid off after half an hour. Johnstone juggled a McEachran corner, dropped the ball and watched Nathaniel Chalobah sweep it home from two yards. Johnstone, who had kept United level with some fine saves, looked crestfallen.
United might have been level on 39 minutes but Will Keane missed horribly from three yards, scuffing his shot after being put through clear on goal by Aziz Deen-Conteh's poor defensive header. Languid and composed in possession Keane had been United's most constructive player in attack, bringing to mind at times a slightly spindly Teddy Sheringham.
Just before half‑time Chelsea made it two. Saville's out-swinging corner was headed in by Chalobah, who leapt prodigiously ten yards out and floated a fine header inside the far post, his second goal capping a composed and intelligent performance. But United emerged after the break looking a different team, steadied by the excellent Larnell Cole's composure in midfield and emboldened by some spiky interventions from Pogba. It was Pogba who drew a flying tip-over from Jamal Blackman on 55 minutes: from the corner Blackman flapped unconvincingly and Jesse Lingard, pipe-cleaner thin but spirited and fearless, swept in the loose ball.
On 71 minutes Chelsea re-established their two‑goal lead, Deen-Conteh's surge down the left finished calmly by the unmarked Bobby Devyne. Still United refused to lie down, and on 76 minutes Pogba climbed well to head their second and leave the tie finely poised.
The question in these games is always: what next? Chelsea's investment in youth has been sharpened in the last two seasons. McEachran is already a first team player, Chalobah looks not too far away. United have the better record in bringing through youth team players, although only Ryan Giggs and Rafael da Silva of the first choice line-up at Stamford Bridge played at this level. Pogba was their leading light here.
As a prelude to Tuesday's senior reunion at Old Trafford this was essentially light relief, an excellent game played in a fine spirit, with a single booking and a complete absence of gamesmanship. In both instances United will fancy their chances of progressing.
Chelsea Jamal Blackman; Todd Kane, Tomas Kalas, Nathaniel Chalobah, Aziz Deen-Conteh; George Saville, Rohan Ince, Josh McEachran; Bobby Devyne, Milan Lalkovic, Adam Nditi.
Manchester United Sam Johnstone; Michael Keane, Michele Fornasier, Tom Thorpe, Sean McGinty; Larnell Cole, Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Jesse Lingard; Gyliano van Velzen, Will Keane.