U21 Premier League Cup- Quarter Final
Chelsea 0 Arsenal 1 (Afobe 106)
By Jeorge Bird at The EBB Stadium, Aldershot
The hour-long drive, the freezing cold, a dour, disappointing, stagnated encounter for the most part and then, just when you think it’s been a wasted journey, a moment of sublime quality takes place deep into extra-time, with Kristoffer Olsson playing a wonderfully-weighted through ball into the path of Benik Afobe, who finishes emphatically to score the goal’s only game.
That was the tale of the encounter between Arsenal and Chelsea’s much-vaunted U21 sides in Aldershot this evening. It was a meeting between two sides containing some supremely talented youngsters, with Jeremie Boga particularly impressing for the hosts, but the occasion was littered with avoidable mistakes from both teams.
Chelsea appeared to seize the initiative as the game dragged on and it was the home side who came the closest to scoring on several occasions as they twice rattled the woodwork and drew several saves from Arsenal’s alert goalkeeper Matt Macey.
The Gunners, for the most part, were lacking the ingenuity of passing that usually comes so naturally to them and struggled to create many clear cut chances before Afobe’s winner, other than the gilt-edged opportunity that fell to, and was squandered by substitute Jon Toral. Some of the defending from both sides, however, has to be commended, with Andreas Christensen resolute for Chelsea and Julio Pleguezuelo and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill equally effective for Arsenal.
It was hardly the best advertisement for U21 football, but Arsenal, for the third tie in succession, have prevailed courtesy of a victory by a single goal and, having now secured their place in the Semi-Finals, will be extremely confident of winning the inaugural U21 Premier League Cup.
With Nico Yennaris having departed earlier in the day and Tafari Moore on international duty, Daniel Boateng was called in from the cold to start at right-back, whilst first-team squad members Ryo and Gedion Zelalem also started. Zach Fagan was named in a matchday squad for the first time since August after recovering from injury.
subs: Toral (for Ryo, 74). Not used: Iliev, Kamara, Fagan, Iwobi.
Chelsea also named a strong side, with Nathan Ake and Izzy Brown amongst their starlets on show, but Arsenal made much of the early running and they wasted a good opportunity in the opening stages when Boateng headed wide from a corner.
Semi Ajayi then needlessly squandered possession at the other end and the centre-back was very nearly made to pay for his mistake, but thankfully Chelsea couldn’t take full advantage of the opportunity.
The ever-dangerous Boga, one of the stand-out performers in this game at the age of just 17, then seized possession but his shot was repelled by Macey.
As far as Arsenal’s attacking movements were concerned, Ryo was seeing a lot of the ball on the right flank, but the Japanese international appeared to be somewhat bereft of confidence as he frequently stumbled in possession and struggled to test Chelsea goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney with a weak effort.
Macey then reacted quickly to tip over an effort from Alex Kiwomya, then John Swift, who was diligent in midfield, rippled the side-netting with a venomous shot.
The game, thankfully for the spectators, began to open up a little after the interval, with Islam Feruz sending a header wide before Boga, involved again, couldn’t quite direct his effort on target. Brown then showed some ingenuity to cut inside Boateng, but found Macey equal to his attempt.
With the clock ticking down Arsenal introduced Toral for the tiring Ryo, but the Spaniard’s major contribution to the game would be memorable for all the wrong reasons after he somehow conspired to miss from close range when Thomas Eisfeld found him with an accurate cross.
There was an agonising moment at the other end before extra-time was confirmed, with Feruz capitalising on a misunderstanding between Macey and Ajayi only to see his effort trickle past the far post.
Chelsea put the ball in the net in the first-half of extra-time, but substitute Adam Nditi’s effort was ruled out following an apparent foul on an Arsenal player. Steve Gatting’s side were certainly living dangerously at that point, with Chelsea subsequently striking the crossbar, but they remained patient for their opportunity and eventually, at long, long last, it arrived.
Olsson found Afobe, who beat Beeney with an unstoppable effort to evoke a feeling of palpable relief. The striker may face an uphill battle in attempting to prolong his career at the club, but he is certainly making a case for his credentials, having now scored four goals in seven appearances since returning from injury.
A beleaguered Chelsea side threatened a late equaliser that would have forced penalties, but Arsenal had just about managed to scrape through in the end.
As far as their potential opponents in the Semi-Finals are concerned, there is still much to be clarified in that regard, with the other three Quarter-Finals still to be played.
Newcastle United and Manchester City meet on Friday, Exeter City play Burnley next week and Wolverhampton Wanderers will take on either Reading or Watford in the other tie.
Whoever they face, Gatting’s side will now be confident of going all the way having eliminated two of the strongest sides in the competition, Fulham and Chelsea, in successive rounds.