As final preparations go, it was considerably tepid. Arsenal U18s struggled to break down a resolute Norwich City side, aided by a goalkeeper in irrepressible form, on a turgid pitch on Saturday in their final fixture before tomorrow’s FA Youth Cup Fourth Round encounter with Fulham.
Coach Steve Gatting remarked that he was pleased with some of the build-up play demonstrated by his side against the Canaries, but, in a refrain that will be familiar to Arsenal supporters everywhere, he also said that Arsenal were lacking in end product in the final third, with Jon Toral, usually so assured in front of goal, guilty of squandering several opportunities.
Hopes will still be high for the visit of the Cottagers, particularly given the manner in which Newcastle United were swept aside in the previous round, but Arsenal know that tomorrow’s opponents will be no pushovers after Fulham dispatched of Middlesbrough 6-4 in an enthralling encounter to reach this stage.
One key difference from that Norwich fixture will be the availability of chief striker Chuba Akpom, who was rested for Saturday’s game having featured for the U21s just three days previously. Akpom provided one of Arsenal’s biggest threats against Newcastle and, in front of a watching Arsene Wenger, will be hopeful of doing so again tomorrow, whilst Hector Bellerin and Toral, two other players that the Frenchman is known to regard highly, will also be eager to prove their worth.
Arsenal must also expect to be tested far more in a defensive sense than they were against Newcastle. Fulham possess a range of attacking threats, most notably Muamer Tankovic, and the Gunners’ centre-back pairing of Zach Fagan and Isaac Hayden will have to remain alert at all times, whilst also relying on support from the dependable Alfred Mugabo in front of them.
Arsenal’s full-backs Bellerin and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill will readily seek to join the attacking movements when possible, whilst much will be expected of Jack Jebb, who, if truth be told, didn’t have the best of times against Newcastle, but will be hopeful of rectifying that tomorrow.
From the bench, Alex Iwobi and Austin Lipman will be hoping to be involved, and hopes are high within the club that if this considerably difficult hurdle can be negotiated, then this side could emulate the Youth Cup winning side of 2008/09. Before that, however, they must break the hoodoo that has engulfed the club at this level since then by progressing past the Fourth Round.