NextGen Series- Quarter-Final
Arsenal 1 (Gnabry 56) CSKA Moscow 0
By Jeorge Bird @ Emirates Stadium
In the build-up to this hotly-anticipated fixture, much was made of the possibility of Serge Gnabry not being available to play due to his international commitments with Germany. As it transpired, Terry Burton and the rest of the Arsenal youngsters will be extremely pleased that the dynamic youngster featured, as he scored the decisive goal to send Arsenal through to an all-London semi-final with Chelsea, whilst also coming close on several other occasions.
That is not to discredit the performances of Arsenal’s other starlets, however. Sead Hajrovic and Isaac Hayden were impressive at the back, Hector Bellerin raided forward regularly from right-back, and indeed was involved in the move that led to Gnabry’s goal, and Thomas Eisfeld, operating in an unorthodox position on the left flank, rattled the crossbar with a free-kick from distance late on.
Arsenal were certainly worth their victory, despite the fact that CSKA Moscow caused them some problems in the opening period. In the second-half, however, Burton’s boys were largely dominant and could well have extended their lead had it not been for some profligate finishing in front of goal. They now stand a genuine chance of winning this competition and, whatever happens against their London rivals in Lake Como on Friday, can be extremely proud of the fighting spirit and determination that they demonstrated to carve out a victory here.
Burton made just two changes to the side that overcame treacherous conditions to prevail past Inter Milan in the Last 16, with Elton Monteiro and Zak Ansah dropping out for Kyle Ebecilio and Eisfeld. With so many creative talents to cram into his starting line-up, Burton’s team selection was somewhat unbalanced, with Ebecilio and Eisfeld filling the wide roles and Gnabry operating as a playmaker behind lone striker Chuba Akpom, whilst Kristoffer Olsson partnered Nico Yennaris in midfield. Schoolboy Ainsley Maitland-Niles made the bench following an injury to Austin Lipman.
Arsenal, in front of a crowd of over 6000 people, started on the front foot, and twice came close to opening the scoring early on. First Akpom, recently recovered from a groin injury, chased down a loose ball and eventually unleashed a shot that was well held by Sergey Revyakin, then, following a typically swift break up-field, Bellerin’s cross picked out Gnabry in the area and the German met it with a diving header which may have crossed the line.
CSKA, who had posed little attacking threat in the opening stages, then conducted a counter-attack of their own, but Dmitry Efremov hashed his effort horribly wide, with his scrabbled attempt eventually trickling out for a corner. CSKA’s players may have found the near-arctic conditions in North London somewhat accommodating, but they received short shrift from Hajrovic and Hayden, who, in tandem, did excellently to repel their every move.
David Khurtsidze volleyed straight at Deyan Iliev in the Arsenal goal as the visitors sought to crank up the pressure, but both sides were limited to half-chances for a while before Ebecilio, hitherto ineffective, picked out Gnabry with a glorious toe-poke, with the latter subsequently driving forward and forcing a corner with a firm strike. Gnabry was certainly coming to the fore at this stage, playing a neat one-two with his compatriot Eisfeld before shooting wide, with Yennaris following suit shortly afterwards.
CSKA threatened again before the interval, but Arsenal’s defence stood firm, although, at that point, the feeling persisted that the Russian side, should they display a little more endeavour, could have escaped from the Emirates with a victory. Such fears were swiftly averted in the second period, however, with Eisfeld signalling Arsenal’s intent with a shot just wide of the far post after being played through by Yennaris, before the adventurous Bellerin shot wide.
Bellerin would play a key role in the game’s decisive moment shortly afterwards, with the Spanish right-back exchanging passes with Gnabry, who, upon receiving the ball for a second time, quickly worked space for himself to shoot before dispatching a low shot that was out of the reach of Revyakin. It was, somewhat remarkably, Gnabry’s first goal of the tournament, and players and supporters alike united in euphoria, but the job was far from done at that stage, with Efremov shooting wide as CSKA hoped for an instant response.
It didn’t come and, instead, Arsenal’s stranglehold on the tie grew ever stronger. Martin Angha, an effective force down the left flank, received the ball back from Gnabry and shot wide, before Zak Ansah was introduced for Akpom, who was struggling with a recurrence of his aforementioned groin problem.
CSKA seemed to sense that the game was up late on and it was Arsenal who came closest to scoring the second goal of the game with Eisfeld’s spectacular free-kick smacking against the crossbar late on. As it transpired, the Gunners had already done enough to proceed to the semi-finals and, for a side who, at one stage, were in serious danger of exiting this competition at the group stages, to reach this stage is in itself a significant achievement.
These players have such a strong sense of unity and belief, however, that their will to win will not yet be sated and they will now be hopeful of progressing all the way in this competition at their first attempt.
Player ratings (4-2-3-1)
Deyan Iliev-6- Authoritative and calm in dealing with everything that was asked of him.
Hector Bellerin-7- Largely resolute defensively and provided a regular attacking threat, including in the move for the goal.
Sead Hajrovic-8- Has matured greatly over the past few years and was imperious at the back alongside Hayden.
Isaac Hayden-8- Has played in many positions at youth level, but centre-back may well be his best option for a future career.
Martin Angha-7- Raided forward regularly from left-back, and came close to scoring himself.
Nico Yennaris-7- Kept Arsenal’s play ticking with some subtle forward touches.
Kristoffer Olsson-7- Can be accused of possessing style over substance, but was effective in both regards here with his flair.
Kyle Ebecilio-5- Perhaps the one disappointment from the night, he failed to build on some impressive recent performances.
Serge Gnabry-8- Scored the decisive goal and could have had several more, and relished playing in the playmaker role.
Thomas Eisfeld-6- Came close with a thumping free-kick but did not seem eminently suited to playing on the left.
Chuba Akpom-6- Came close early on but succumbed to injury before being withdrawn.
Zak Ansah (for Akpom, 78)-6- Added a measure of directness and pace to the attack following his introduction.
Not used: Josh Vickers, Alfred Mugabo, Jack Jebb, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Alex Iwobi, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill.