UEFA Youth League
Arsenal 1 (Mavididi) Dinamo Zagreb 2
By Jeorge Bird at Meadow Park
Arsenal U19s fell to their first defeat in the UEFA Youth League this season as they were beaten 2-1 by their Dinamo Zagreb counterparts at Meadow Park this afternoon.
Andries Jonker’s side were impressive in the opening period but were made to pay for some sluggish defending in the second half and finished the game empty handed despite substitute Stephy Mavididi reducing the deficit after he converted from Chris Willock’s cross.
There was further bad news for the young Gunners as Kaylen Hinds suffered an injury in the first-half which led to him leaving the ground on crutches.
However, Jonker’s team are still on course to qualify for the Last 16 stage of the competition going into their final group game away to Olympiacos.
Jonker shuffled his pack for this game. Deprived of the services of Jeff Reine-Adelaide (who is likely to be with the first-team again tonight) and Dan Crowley, the Dutchman named a much-changed line-up, with Ben Sheaf, Mavididi, Ismael Bennacer and Krystian Bielik all left on the bench.
First-years Marcus Agyei-Tabi and Donyell Malen were both given starts, whilst Alex Iwobi, rather strangely, was again deployed in a deep-lying midfield position.
Subs: Robinson (for Hinds, 19), Bennacer (for Agyei-Tabi, 66), Mavididi (for Nelson, 73). Not used: Huddart, Bielik, Sheaf, Fortune.
Arsenal, who went into this fixture having taken ten points from their first four group games, started slowly, with Iwobi squandering possession, enabling Zagreb to have the first effort of the game, which saw a shot sail over Hugo Keto’s crossbar.
Arsenal responded with Willock, who was a threat all afternoon, shooting over himself, but it wasn’t long before Zagreb carved out another opportunity, with the young Gunners being caught out down their left flank, leading to the opposition sending a header over.
Eventually Arsenal started to assert themselves on proceedings and they really should have opened the scoring when a precise lofted through-ball from Agyei-Tabi found Malen, who shot wide when well placed.
Arsenal then lost Hinds to injury, with Tyrell Robinson entering the fray, but their attacking momentum remained very much intact.
Iwobi came close to scoring on three occasions in quick succession, but at the other end there was a nervous moment when Stefan O’Connor, on a rare start, mis-kicked the ball, although thankfully Keto was on hand to gather.
Reiss Nelson, the youngest player in the Arsenal side, was starting to become increasingly influential, with the England youth international finding Agyei-Tabi, who shot just wide from distance.
Robinson then sent an effort wide of the target, but it was Zagreb who ended the half in the ascendancy, with Josip Brekalo coming close to scoring.
Malen had Arsenal’s first opportunity of the second half as the Dutch forward did well to create space for himself before seeing his shot saved.
However, Zagreb had threatened on the counter-attack on several occasions earlier in the game and they finally got their reward when a neat move culminated in Brekalo sending the ball beyond the reach of Keto.
O’Connor then made an important block to prevent the visitors from inflicting further damage, but Zagreb continued to threaten, with Arsenal right-back Aaron Eyoma struggling to cope.
Further inept defending from Arsenal enabled Amer Gojak to double Zagreb’s advantage with a neat finish.
The introduction of Bennacer improved the tempo of Arsenal’s game, but it was another substitute, Mavididi, who would make a more telling contribution.
The striker showed impressive awareness to finish well after he was located in the penalty area by the ever-dangerous Willock.
Willock, who trained with the first-team yesterday, continued to threaten in the latter stages as Arsenal sought an equaliser that would have rubber-stamped their progression to the Last 16.
However, despite there being five minutes of added time and goalkeeper Keto joining the attacking movement, Arsenal were unable to find a second goal.
Arsenal’s place in the Last 16 is almost secure, and, given their superior goal difference, it would take something remarkable for them to fail to progress.
Today’s performance wasn’t entirely convincing, particularly in a defensive sense, but, as was the case in the U21 game against Stoke City on Friday, the performance of Willock stood out in adversity.