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May 26, 2024
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Chelsea have silver lining in FA Cup as academy talents spark win


LONDON — Mauricio Pochettino famously dismissed the domestic cup competitions during his time in charge of Tottenham as little more than a distraction, but they are providing a soothing balm for what has been a painful Premier League campaign for his Chelsea team.

For Blues fans, the prospect of a cup run is the one thing seemingly keeping their faith from bursting at the seams. So much so that you could clearly sense the relief they felt when a four-goal blitz in the second half eventually saw Chelsea outclass Championship side Preston North End at Stamford Bridge to book their place in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

It is often said that a cup triumph can galvanise teams, particularly those operating under new leadership offering novel ideas and a fresh approach. There is perhaps no other club in the world so in the thrall of anything new and shiny, irrespective of its quality, than Chelsea. Ever since the Todd Boehly-led Clearlake Capital consortium purchased the club in 2022 and invested more than £1 billion on young talent, there are remarkably few points of reference left in this corner of west London.

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It’s a club and a team that has been distorted, reshaped and amortised into an unrecognisable version of what went before. Who do the fans identify with anymore? Why does the club want to let Conor Gallagher leave? When did they sign Lesley Ugochukwu?

Here, though, Pochettino opted to hand academy graduate Alfie Gilchrist his first start for the club and handed the captain’s armband to Levi Colwill. In the absence of winning quality from their expensively assembled teammates, particularly during a slow burning first 45 minutes in which Chelsea failed to score for the consecutive 11th match, the Chelsea youth products provided steel and determination in an old-school FA Cup fixture which needed exactly that.

Gilchrist was excellent during his 61 minutes on the pitch. Colwill, meanwhile, has that rare Rio Ferdinand-esque gift of gliding across the pitch towards an opposition attacker like a figure skater before clattering into them with the force of a freight train.

For a team that rival supporters accuse of having no history, the echoes of Chelsea’s recent past hang heavy at Stamford Bridge. Tributes to victorious heroes — Peter Bonetti, John Terry, Frank Lampard — ripple in the wind above the pitch in west London, serving as a reminder of the relentless success that has defined this club throughout the last two decades.

It’s handy that they are there because, apart from the academy graduates, this Chelsea side bears little resemblance to the juggernaut that went before.

It seems derivative to simply write off the formation of this Chelsea squad as a misguided and ill-informed attempt at American draft-style squad building, but the chances of Boehly winding up having the last laugh in a year or two’s time is appearing increasingly remote.

However, with the raucous 6,000-strong Preston fans sensing an unlikely upset after watching their team go toe-to-toe with Chelsea’s star names, it was another academy graduate who broke the game open for Pochettino.

The release of pent-up frustration was palpable in Stamford Bridge when Armando Broja leapt highest in the Preston penalty area to divert Malo Gusto‘s cross in off the post before goals from Thiago Silva, Raheem Sterling and Enzo Fernández put some gloss on the final result.

“I think he [Broja] needs to use this type of game, when he scores the goal and feel the net to improve,” Pochettino said. “And improve not only in his fitness or in his work ethic [but also] his body language.

“He needs to smile more, a little bit more positive. I think it’s in the way that he needs to improve and he’s going to improve in his game. The potential is amazing. We are talking about one of the young strikers here in England or in Europe I think with most potential … We are going to try to help to push himself to realise that it’s never enough and work really hard.”

The Albania international’s career progress to date has been hampered by a serious knee injury after he showed glimpses of his talent during loan spells at Vitesse and Southampton. With Chelsea rumoured to be mulling over an approach for Brentford‘s Ivan Toney perhaps the timing will finally be right for the forward to prove his worth in west London.

“By the way, I think he’s suffering in the past a big issue,” Pochettino said. “He was nearly one year away [with injury] and of course now he needs time. It’s not easy for him to perform or to be in the level that we expect, but our expectation is massive and I think we really believe in him and for sure we are going to push him to try to improve every day.”

Tottenham’s repeated failures in cup competitions led Pochettino to complain in 2019 that a League Cup or FA Cup win “only builds your ego.” His belief that “the most important thing is being consistently in the top four and playing in the Champions League” rankled with fans in north London who craved an end to Spurs’ ongoing trophy drought.

Since taking over at Chelsea, though, he had seemingly given more credence to their potential benefits. His altered perspective was evident in the celebrations that followed his team’s penalty shootout victory over Newcastle in the quarterfinal of the Carabao Cup before Christmas. The consensus among the Chelsea supporters is that the Carabao Cup semifinal against Middlesbrough is the most important game of their season, with the prospect of a cup triumph providing vital succour.



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