Having returned from their prolonged Winter break, Arsenal U21s will sample the matchday environment for the first time in 2013 tomorrow when they welcome West Bromwich Albion to London Colney for the opening fixture of the Elite Development Group, which contains the sides who finished highest in their respective categories in the first part of the campaign.
Arsenal coach Terry Burton used a wide array of players as his side, including several members of the first-team squad, as the U21s finished second in National Group One, an achievement which has earned them the right to compete with the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool over the next few months, in a bid to reach the play-offs and, ultimately, be crowned inaugural champions of the Premier U21 League.
The Gunners must first do battle again with West Brom, with the Midlands side having already beaten Arsenal twice in the first phase, including on Jack Wilshere’s comeback game at the Hawthorns. In the most recent encounter between the two sides, a superbly struck free-kick by Kristoffer Olsson was not enough to prevent the Baggies emerging from North London with all three points, and Burton’s side will be hoping for a more positive outcome when the sides meet again tomorrow afternoon, in a game that is not accessible to the general public.
With the first-team squad currently rather thin on resources, it seems unlikely that any senior figures will feature tomorrow, with the possible exception of midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong, who has been suffering from illness having only recently returned from a loan spell with Charlton Athletic which yielded mixed success. Craig Eastmond, Sanchez Watt, Conor Henderson and Daniel Boateng have also returned from spells elsewhere in recent weeks, but the quartet are all currently recovering from mid to long-term injuries sustained during their loan adventures.
As far as the other injury doubts are concerned, Ignasi Miquel should return to the side, whilst Serge Gnabry will face a late fitness test. Kyle Ebecilio remains out, but Jordan Wynter is closing in on a return. Arsene Wenger is likely to be present to watch the youngsters in action, and he will be particularly keen to assess right-back Hector Bellerin who, if reports are to be believed, could be elevated to the first-team squad as early as next season.
Zak Ansah will also be looking to get some valuable minutes under his belt, whilst Thomas Eisfeld, who perhaps as not been as readily involved in first-team proceedings as may have been anticipated, will also be seeking to prove his worth. Yassine El Ghanassy, on loan from Gent, is likely to be the principal West Brom threat, with the winger having performed admirably in both games against the Gunners so far this season.
subs: Charles-Cook, Hajrovic, Rees, Bihmoutine, Neita.
U21 Premier League- Fixtures:
Wed Jan 9- West Brom (H), Sun Jan 20- Southampton (A), Mon Jan 28- West Ham (H), Mon Feb 4- Liverpool (H), Mon Feb 11- Man Utd (A), Mon Feb 18- Wolves (H), Sat Feb 23- Tottenham (A), Sun Mar 3- West Brom (A), Mon Mar 11- Southampton (H)*, Fri Mar 15- West Ham (A), Thu Apr 4- Man Utd (H)*, Mon Apr 8- Liverpool (A), Mon Apr 15- Wolves (A), Mon Apr 22- Tottenham (H)*.
*- At Underhill.