Chelsea young stars Chalobah, James step up as club’s veteran defenders threaten to move on

LONDON — Trevoh Chalobah and Reece James set Chelsea on their way to a commanding 4-0 victory over Juventus and a Champions League last-16 spot, but the pair’s ongoing emergence is strengthening the club in other notable ways.

The serenity with which the Blues have negotiated the formative months of this season has helped relegate uncertainty over several senior first-team players to mere footnotes in a run that has seen them progress in Europe while holding a lead at the top of the Premier League. That continued at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday in Thomas Tuchel’s 50th game in charge, as his side delivered another emphatic performance to banish the memory of a 1-0 defeat in last month’s reverse fixture and take control of Group H, needing only to match Juve’s result against Malmo when they take on Zenit St. Petersburg next month to win the group.

The prominent presence of several academy players has its genesis in Frank Lampard’s spell in charge, and there was no guarantee this would extend into Tuchel’s tenure given he lacked the same deep-rooted connection with many of the club’s youngsters. But not only has Tuchel picked up where Lampard left off, he has added Chalobah to the list of homegrown players to thrive in an arena once considered impenetrable to the academy, creating a useful buffer in protracted contract negotiations involving Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta and, to a lesser extent, Thiago Silva.

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That quartet are all out of contract at the end of the season. While it remains unclear whether Silva will continue for another season given he will turn 38 next September, the remaining trio are viewed as useful, retainable assets, but Chalobah and James producing performances like this will only make director Marina Granovskaia even more comfortable in her negotiating position.

The same is true of the January transfer window. Chelsea retain an interest in Jules Kounde but were unwilling to meet Sevilla’s €80 million asking price over the summer, and why should they if Chalobah can take his game to the highest level like this? Sevilla’s hand may be forced or Chelsea could look for a cheaper alternative, but all options are open with a promising centre-back emerging internally.

“The crowd loves it and I am absolutely convinced that everybody loves it,” Tuchel said of the club’s homegrown talents. “This is what makes teams special, not only the superstars and the best players from abroad, which we also have in our squad, but it is the mix. To have talented and humble guys and guys from the academy full of quality who it is their biggest dream to perform at Stamford Bridge, to perform in blue, to be part of a strong Chelsea team, this is so nice to be part of it.

“Another excellent day for the academy, full credit to them. It is a pleasure to have these boys and I strongly believe this is a huge part of the success that we have: this mix between homegrown talents and top players.”

Chalobah produced a striker’s finish to open the scoring after 25 minutes, half-volleying a loose ball high into the net as Juventus struggled to deal with a Hakim Ziyech corner. The 22-year-old had already found the net on his league debut against Crystal Palace in August and here he marked his first Champions League start with a goal that made him the youngest player to score for Chelsea on his full debut in the competition since Brazilian midfielder Oscar in September 2012.

James’ prowess is better documented, given he already has four goals to his name this season. The 21-year-old had already emerged sufficiently under Lampard to make his England debut in October last year, but his game has kicked on under Tuchel, enjoying the role of rampaging wing-back no more so than when chesting down Ben Chilwell’s deflected cross to thrash an unstoppable shot past Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny on 56 minutes.

In between, Silva was required to make a brilliant acrobatic clearance to clear off the line and deny Alvaro Morata a goal on his return to Stamford Bridge, but Juventus were far more concerned about trying to keep Chelsea at bay rather than mounting any sustained threat of their own.

A brilliant team goal extended the home side’s advantage two minutes later. James controlled the ball superbly on the right and played it into the box to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who showed nimble footwork and composure to jink his way past several defenders before teeing up Callum Hudson-Odoi for a simple finish.

It is the first time Chelsea have had three different English goal scorers in a Champions League match, and another notable step for Hudson-Odoi, whose levels of focus were questioned as he struggled on the fringes earlier in the campaign but injuries to Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner have given him a run in the team he has largely capitalised on.

Werner returned to add some extra gloss to the scoreline in added time, tapping home Ziyech’s excellent cross after more fine work from James.

The only sour note for Chelsea were injuries to N’Golo Kante and, later, Chilwell. Kante walked off unaided but Chilwell had to be helped from the field, making him the bigger doubt for Sunday’s Premier League visit of Manchester United.

“[Chilwell] was in a lot of pain, now he feels a bit better,” Tuchel said. “We have an examination tomorrow to be more precise. We hope for the best, hopefully we get away, fingers crossed, with not too bad news.

“With N’Golo, it is a bit the same. He got stronger and stronger in the first half and twisted his knee a little bit. Hopefully it is not too bad.”

United are rightly celebrated for their own youth development programme and a remarkable run of naming an academy graduate in every matchday squad since 1937. Chelsea do not possess anything like that history, but nights like this underline that while United’s kids are struggling to live up to that past, the homegrown Blues are augmenting the present.

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