FA Youth Cup Fifth Round
Charlton Athletic 0 Arsenal 2 (Iwobi 79, Maitland-Niles 90)
By Jeorge Bird @ Stonebridge Road
A heroic performance from goalkeeper Josh Vickers, added to by well-taken goals from wingers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi, ensured that Arsenal U18s progressed to the Quarter-Finals of the FA Youth Cup for the first time since 2009 with a 2-0 victory away to Charlton Athletic this evening.
Following a first-half that was packed full of endeavour but sorely lacking in terms of clinical finishing, Arsenal upped the ante considerably after the break, and the pressure applied by Carl Laraman’s side eventually paid dividends, although it may well have been a different story were it not for the exploits of Vickers, who made four outstanding stops to help his side prevail.
Charlton worked tremendously hard all evening and must be praised for preventing Arsenal from playing their favoured passing game for long spells, but the home side were left to rue some horrendous misses in front of goal, which, executed properly, could have swung the tie in their favour.
For all the justified criticism of their league performances, Arsenal’s development sides have made commendable progression in each of the three cup competitions they are involved in, and, on this evidence, there may well be a trophy to celebrate for the youngsters at the end of the campaign. It must not be forgotten, though, that their opponents in the last eight at Emirates Stadium will be Everton, the side who knocked them out of the competition last season.
Laraman received some hugely positive news just hours before kick-off, with right-back Tafari Moore passing a late fitness test to start. Leander Siemann was called upon in the absence of Stefan O’Connor, whilst Jack Jebb filled in for the injured Dan Crowley and Chuba Akpom started under the conditions of his loan deal with Coventry City.
subs: Dawkins (for Zelalem, 75), Dobson (for Jebb, 84). Not used: Lipman, Wright, Huddart.
The fact that the Charlton side contained two former Arsenal youngsters in Aaron Barnes and Regan Cook added an extra sense of spice to this tie, with Trevor Brooking, the FA’s Director of Football Development in attendance for this much-anticipated clash between two prominent academy sides.
The game was rather slow to get going, with both sides restricted to half chances in the early stages. Iwobi, stationed on the left flank, saw a cross easily gathered, before Charlton responded with their number eleven, Joshua Umerah, seeing a shot easily held by Vickers after a mazy run upfield.
Left-back Levander Pyke then struggled to test Vickers with a tame effort, with Arsenal then coming close after Iwobi headed just over from Jebb’s well-executed free-kick. Following that, Barnes managed to weave his way through the Gunners’ defence but couldn’t unleash a shot in time, then Glen Kamara shot just wide from Jebb’s corner.
Akpom subsequently did well to fizz the ball across the face of goal, with Jebb in an inviting position, but the midfielder, much in keeping with the nature of the first-half, failed to make a firm connection and the ball trickled out of play.
Charlton’s play was a little more direct than Arsenal’s, but they were always a threat on the counter-attack. On one such occasion, Vickers was forced to make an outstanding stop following a brisk move upfield, before Maitland-Niles received a yellow card for a petulant challenge that epitomised Arsenal’s frustration at that point.
Charlton were simply not allowing Arsenal to dictate play, with Gedion Zelalem in particular struggling to make a sustained impact on proceedings. The Germany U17 international is undoubtedly a phenomenal talent, otherwise he wouldn’t have been promoted to the first-team squad at the age of 16, but some of his performances for the youth teams this season have left a lot to be desired.
Cook, who was impressive throughout, saw his long-range shot held by Vickers, before a moment of ingenuity from Akpom almost put Arsenal ahead on the stroke of half-time. The striker pounced upon some hesitant defending to seize possession and subsequently forced a good save from goalkeeper Harry Doherty, who pushed the ball away for a corner.
That was a telling indication of what was to come in the second-half, with Arsenal, as the game gradually became more open, starting to assert themselves at long last. Their progress in their first two fixtures in this competition, against Torquay United and Peterborough United, was relatively serene, but this was their first major test and Charlton, at various points of the piece, looked likely winners.
Arsenal, though, were starting to threaten. Iwobi raced upfield almost immediately after the restart and drew a foul, with Jebb sending the subsequent free-kick into the well-organised wall. Soon afterwards Jebb played another free-kick straight into the path of the unmarked Iwobi, who shot wide.
Jebb was growing in prominence, with the midfielder forcing Doherty to tip his well-struck effort over the crossbar, but he was evidently tiring by the hour mark and Arsenal had to rely on other sources to continue their attacking onslaught.
Maitland-Niles saw a cross pushed away, then Iwobi, who was in the thick of the action again, saw his header saved after good work from Kamara. Archie Edwards was denied at the other end, then Zelalem, providing a rare glimpse of his brilliance, turned well before shooting just over.
A dangerous ball in from Maitland-Niles then struck the crossbar as Arsenal edged ever closer to an opener, but they still had to be alert at the other end, with Vickers doing well to clear the danger from a corner.
Then came what may well be looked back upon as the turning point in the match. A cross was swung in, with the ball falling invitingly for Umerah, but somehow, to the utter shock of the 1198 people inside the stadium, he failed to even find the target with just Vickers to beat.
At that point, you sensed that Charlton’s chance had come and gone. That assertion would prove to be correct, but Arsenal continued to live rather dangerously, with Vickers somehow scrambling the ball away following Barnes’ effort.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, Arsenal found the breakthrough they had been searching for all evening, with a slick passing move culminating in Akpom finding Iwobi and the latter finding the net to the palpable relief of himself and his team-mates.
Brandon Hanlan hacked wide in retaliation for Charlton, but, by this stage, Arsenal seemed confident that they would progress. Iwobi put the ball in the net again, only to see his effort ruled out for offside this time, before the same player was denied by Doherty moments later.
Charlton continued to push forward, but, try as they might, they could not find a way past the might of Vickers, who pulled off several stupendous saves to preserve the scoreline. Any lasting ambitions that Charlton had of forcing extra-time were killed off when, in stoppage time, substitute Tarum Dawkins played in Maitland-Niles who continued his record of scoring in every round of the competition so far.
He, and Arsenal, will hope to maintain that feat until May.