Manchester United's youngsters take on Chelsea in the Under-18 Premier League national final on Saturday at Leigh Sports Village (12:00 BST kick-off), with the game live on MUTV and free to view on our YouTube channel.
Kieran McKenna's side have been rewarded for topping the northern division, finishing six points clear of second-placed Manchester City, with a tough test against southern counterparts Chelsea, who also secured a fifth successive FA Youth Cup this week and only lost out in the final of the UEFA Youth League to Barcelona.
The one-off game is eagerly anticipated but the Reds will be without some key players due to international call-ups. James Garner (England), Ethan Laird (England), Arnau Puigmal (Spain) and Largie Ramazani (Belgium) are all in Under-17 European Championship action. Chelsea are expected to field largely second-year Academy players but will be missing England's Tino Anjorin and Dutch striker Daishawn Redan for the same reason.
Angel Gomes, Aliou Traore and the club's Youth-Team Player of the Year, Tahith Chong, were among the young Reds who trained on Wednesday in front of the MUTV cameras as United look to end a great season at this level on a real high.
“They’re training really well,” coach McKenna told MUTV.
“It’s nice to have this game to look forward to at the end of the season because it certainly gives a real purpose to training. We’ve had the group together for a good few days now and it’s been good. We’re starting to work on how we’ll play and will then work on the opposition stuff. So the boys are preparing well and we’re all looking forward to the game. I hope we can go out and put in a good performance.
”You get a little bit more time but we’re not treating it any differently in terms of the process. We’re training as well as we can and will concentrate mostly on us, our strengths and how to impose them on the opposition. There is a little bit more time to go into detail, with us not having a game last weekend, so we can go into more detail on a game-plan and what we can execute on the day. It’s been nice and it’s been a bonus. It’s a good step in the players’ learning as well if they’re going to play in an FA Cup final or European final one day, in having a long build-up to a game so it’s all been positive.
“Obviously, they’re all going to be keen to play and it’s disappointing for those who won’t start but we don’t have a very big squad at the moment. We have a few injuries and some internationals away. It’s a tight group that has been together and those who play will be the ones who have got the opportunity and responsibility at the start of the game but we know substitutes will be important. It’s taken a whole squad effort over the year and we’ll make sure everyone feels part of it on the day.
”The call-ups are a positive thing for the club and the group that the boys have been recognised internationally. We encourage that but the timing of this one is difficult and those boys who are away will be sorely missed for Saturday. That’s football at this level. The European Championship will be a good experience for them, as will the game on Saturday, which will be great experience for those involved in that. It is what it is. The group of players we have here are ready to play and we’re focused on getting them as ready as we can.
The Reds are at home but Leigh Sports Village has not been a regular venue for McKenna's side. Given Chelsea's impressive win against our Under-23s at the same stadium, with many of those players likely to be involved this weekend, it may not have a huge bearing on the outcome.
“I think it’s probably a big advantage having had the Manchester City game at Leigh a couple of weeks ago,” said McKenna.
“That would have been the first time here for most of the boys so, to have played at that stadium, is a bonus having had a match there with the same kick-off time and same preparation. To be honest, though, most of Chelsea’s team played in the Under-23s game earlier in the season so they will be familiar with the ground as well. I don’t know if it’s too much of an advantage but we’ll take it where we can get it.
”Chelsea have been very dominant over the last few years in terms of the teams they have produced. They have had consistently good teams over every season and always play very well – they’re physically strong, very well organised, tactically good and always have very good players. They are very dominant and our biggest challenger at this level in terms of the team. There’s no doubt about that but it’s what we want. We want the players to be face challenges and this is certainly going to be one of them. But there's a bigger picture in the longer term, and the focus will always be on developing individuals and trying to bring them through. This is a great challenge for our team and a step up from the sides we’ve played this year but the type of game we want to see them in.
“We have had some good games this season, playing City in a league decider, and we want to play against these teams. We had a great game against Arsenal in the League Cup and another great one out in Dallas that was at a really high level. We played Chelsea last year when we finished in the top group and went into the Merit section and we had a fantastic game down at Cobham. We took the game to them and scored three goals away from home at their place so we expect it to be a good game again. There are a lot of good players on the pitch and two teams that want to dominate the game and impose themselves on it, so it’s going to be interesting.”
PLAYERS CHAMPING AT THE BIT TO FACE CHELSEA
Three of the more senior members of the squad spoke to ManUtd.com in the build-up to the big game to reflect the positive mood within the camp.
“We've got the final against Chelsea and it's the last game of the season,” said Angel Gomes, who has already had a taste of first-team action at United.
“I've been on a good run in training and I've been feeling fine from my injury.
”I'm just looking forward to getting back on the pitch and showing what I can do.
Tahith Chong may have been promoted to the Under-23s but is expected to play a big part against the Blues, with the Reserves' campaign now over.
”Everyone is just focused on this game,
“ said the Curaçao-born forward. ”We want to win this one as well before seeing what happens next season. It's a big game coming up and I want to play in it as that is where all the focus is at the moment.
“I think every game is different at this stage. To play in the final, you don't want to go to the final and lose it. We've been working really hard to be as good as possible on the day.”
Classy defender Lee O'Connor concedes Chelsea may be considered favourites by many pundits due to their extraordinary record at this level but is backing the Reds to continue the outstanding work this term.
“They have been very dominant over the last few years,” he said.
“We will probably be going into it as underdogs but we're confident and really looking forward to the game.”
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