This time last week Arsenal’s youngsters were still in with a chance, albeit not a very realistic one, of claiming three trophies this season. Now, following their exits from the U21 Premier League Cup and the UEFA Youth League in the space of four days, they have just the FA Youth Cup to play for.
There are still several league fixtures to fulfil, including the U21s’ trip to White Hart Lane next Friday, but, with the Gunners languishing in 18th place in the second-string table, the Youth Cup is the only remaining chance of a silverware this season.
Carl Laraman’s side will take on Chelsea in the two-legged Semi-Final, with the games to be staged at Stamford Bridge and Emirates Stadium, which will provide another memorable experience for the academy players.
First, however, it is worth reflecting on those two aforementioned defeats. The 3-1 loss to Reading in the U21 Premier League Cup last Saturday was not entirely unexpected given that Reading were the better side when the two teams met in the league recently.
Arsenal, however, took the lead through a penalty from captain Isaac Hayden, only for Reading to equalise just before half-time after pouncing upon some slack defending.
Steve Gatting’s side soon lost their momentum, with Ryo suffering a serious injury, and Reading eventually prevailed, scoring twice in extra-time to send Arsenal out of a competition in which they had fought bravely this season. Reading certainly deserved the win on the balance of play, with the visitors striking the crossbar twice, whilst Arsenal, who rested several players ahead of the trip to Barcelona in the Youth League, were far from their best.
The Barcelona game, despite the final scoreline being 4-2 in favour of the Spanish side, was a hugely entertaining affair and a credit to youth football. It was also hugely eventful. Both teams missed penalties, with Kristoffer Olsson squandering his effort from the spot early on after Arsenal had made a highly positive start.
Barcelona punished Arsenal for their profligacy, with Munir El Haddadi closing down Stefan O’Connor’s weak clearance and diverting the ball into the net, but Serge Gnabry pulled Arsenal level before half-time with a well-taken goal after being found by the impressive Jon Toral.
The course of the game changed when Barcelona introduced powerful midfielder Wilfrid Kaptoum at the start of the second-half, with Arsenal struggling to cope with the 17 year old. Winger Adama Traore was also lively and he made it 2-1 just after the break.
It looked like game over for Arsenal when goalkeeper Deyan Iliev was sent off after giving away a penalty, but the youngsters gave themselves a lifeline after Barcelona missed the penalty and Chuba Akpom scored to make it 2-2 after a spell of Arsenal pressure.
Barcelona were far from finished, however, and they secured victory with late strikes from Traore and Kaptoum, leaving Arsenal with just the Youth Cup to focus on.