Given the serenity with which they started the group stage, registering comfortable wins away to Marseille and at home to Napoli, it was rather surprising that Arsenal U19s had to wait until the final matchday to secure progression to the latter stages of the UEFA Youth League.
As it transpired their 2-1 defeat to Napoli yesterday was rendered irrelevant by other results and Arsenal still qualified as group winners, meaning they will face a single-legged tie, most likely at home, against one of Shakhtar Donetsk, Copenhagen, PSG, Schalke, Austria Vienna or AC Milan in the New Year, with the draw to be made on Monday.
How far can Arsenal progress in the competition? That could well depend on the availability of Serge Gnabry. The German winger scored twice whilst operating as a makeshift striker in the victory away to Marseille, but, owing to his first-team commitments, didn’t feature in any of the other group stage fixtures.
Depending on whether he is needed for the first-team, Gnabry may well be called upon for the latter stages of the Youth League, with the winger having played a major part in Arsenal’s progression to the semi-finals of the NextGen Series last season.
Hector Bellerin may also have returned from his loan spell at Watford by the time the competition resumes, although, such is the Spaniard’s good form at present, it may be preferable for him to stay at Vicarage Road for the remainder of the campaign.
This is an Arsenal side with much technical ability, with the likes of Kristoffer Olsson, Gedion Zelalem and Jon Toral key components of the team, whilst it is hoped that Chuba Akpom, who found the net yesterday, will have rediscovered his goalscoring touch in time for the knockout rounds having not scored with such regularity this season as he did last campaign.
Dan Crowley, who emerged off the bench to make his competition debut yesterday, may well prove to be Arsenal’s not so secret weapon with his ability to unlock defences with precise through balls, but if there is a concern about this side then it is in defence, with a young back line having conceded five goals in their final three group stage fixtures.
Goalkeeper Deyan Iliev, meanwhile, who started every single group stage game, is still not especially convincing in his decision making despite possessing impressive reflexes. The return of Isaac Hayden, though, who missed yesterday’s game through suspension, may provide the side with some much-needed solidity.
In the NextGen Series last season, Arsenal progressed past Inter Milan and CSKA Moscow before surrendering to Chelsea in an eventful semi-final. This season they will be seeking to go even further and win the inaugural UEFA Youth League, but, given the calibre of the opposition that lies ahead, it will certainly not be an easy task.