For much of the season it seemed inevitable that Chelsea FC would contest the inaugural UEFA Youth League finals that kick off this Friday in Nyon, Switzerland.
The only side to win all their group games, with 18 goals for and only one against, Chelsea cruised past AC Milan to set up a home quarter-final with FC Schalke 04, whom they had beaten twice already in the autumn without conceding. But on 16 March in Cobham, Schalke were supreme, Sebastian Starke Hedlund's early penalty added to before half-time by Maurice Multhaup. Although John Swift reduced the arrears midway through the second half, substitute Florian Pick secured a 3-1 victory.
Chelsea manager Dermot Drummy later conceded: "They are a quality side and their coach had done his homework on us – they blocked us off centrally and hit us on the counter." Now that same coach, Norbert Elgert, is preparing for an 11 April semi-final with FC Barcelona.
"My team will play [in a way they] believe is able to decide the match in their favour," Elgert told UEFA.com. "But we won't put ourselves under pressure. To me, it is important for our lads that the joy and happiness of playing football and their enthusiasm for football should always be bigger than any form of pressure, and we will focus on that in the upcoming match as well.
"We certainly want to reach the final, but it is not a tragedy if we don't make it. It is just important that we invest all we have, and that we are confident and also play to have possession – and not just watch Barça play tiki-taka."
As Elgert states, the UEFA Youth League is as much about giving players experience as lifting the trophy, especially in the group stage, when the schedule mirrors that of the UEFA Champions League. "It all starts with travelling together with the professionals," the 57-year-old added.
"They learn how everything works. They get an insight without being put under pressure on the first day, but the pressure then comes up the next day when they have to play. It has all been very conducive, and it helps our lads to develop further, to be able to compete with so many different playing styles and philosophies. To compete with all those teams lets them all advance in their development."
One teenage talent taking that opportunity is defender Pascal Itter, a veteran of Germany's run to the 2012 UEFA European Under-17 Championship final. "I think we have developed a lot over the last season," the 19-year-old said. "And we have been performing well in the Youth League. In terms of emotions, it was just fantastic as we haven't experienced a competition like this before. You can see that the team has developed further thanks to that."
To hear more from Elgert and Itter on the competition, click the video player above.
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