The euphoria of their dramatic victory over Charlton Athletic in the FA Youth Cup on Friday night has not yet died down, but Arsenal’s youngsters are already turning their attention towards Tuesday’s intriguing encounter against Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Youth League.
The single-legged tie is sure to be full of drama given that it has to be settled on the night, whilst both teams have been provided with an extra sense of motivation after learning last week that the victors will travel to face Barcelona in the Quarter-Finals.
Before they can book their flights for Spain, however, the young Gunners will have to negotiate their way past a Shakhtar side that qualified as runners-up in Group A at the expense of Bayer Leverkusen and Manchester United.
Several of the players involved against Charlton are in line to feature again on Tuesday, and the confidence gained from that success may well prove to be a useful asset. Arsenal can also call upon a few more experienced players, with U21 regulars Hector Bellerin, Isaac Hayden, Kristoffer Olsson and Jon Toral all set to feature, whilst goalkeeper Deyan Iliev is set to continue his sequence of starting every game in this competition so far.
As far as the younger players are concerned, wingers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi, the stars of the show against Charlton, may well be competing for one spot in the starting line-up on the right flank, whilst it is expected that centre-back Stefan O’Connor will return in time to partner Julio Pleguezuelo at the heart of the defence.
It is hoped that, if he features, we will see rather more from Gedion Zelalem than he demonstrated against Charlton, with the 17 year old having struggled to catch the eye in many of his youth team appearances this season. It is also something of a surprise, given how highly rated he is within the club, that the midfielder is yet to sign his first professional contract.
The Charlton fixture demonstrated Arsenal’s ability to battle their way towards a result, although it was their technical quality and ability to rampage forwards at breakneck speed that eventually yielded success. Without the more stylish qualities offered by Dan Crowley, who was absent through injury, the youngsters demonstrated their ability to withstand pressure and time their forward movements to perfection.
The presence of Chuba Akpom up front, with the youngster eligible to feature under the terms of his youth loan with Coventry City, certainly helped Arsenal’s cause, with the 18 year old hovering on the edge of the opposition’s defensive line before causing havoc upon receiving possession with his technical wizardry.
Akpom is set to lead the line again for the visit of Shakhtar, and the striker will be seeking to add to his tally of three goals in four starts in the competition so far.
The Charlton fixture also saw two players handed their Youth Cup debuts in Tarum Dawkins and George Dobson, although the two players are at different ends of the spectrum, with Dobson yet to commence his scholarship and Dawkins approaching the end of his. The winger has not yet been informed whether he will receive a professional contract, but his recent performances since recovering from a serious injury should be enough to earn him an extended stay.
Serge Gnabry is eligible to feature on Tuesday, but, given that he is now firmly established as part of the first-team squad, it seems unlikely that the German winger will be involved.
Possible Arsenal team to face Shakhtar Donetsk:
subs: Huddart, Moore, Siemann, Kamara, Jebb, Lipman, Iwobi.