UEFA Youth League- Last 16
Arsenal 3 (Toral 24, Olsson 70 (pen), Gnabry 73) Shakhtar Donetsk 1 (Boryachuk 44)
By Jeorge Bird @ Meadow Park, Borehamwood
At long last Arsenal’s youngsters will be able to test themselves against the might of Barcelona after they battled their way past a spirited Shakhtar Donetsk side this evening to secure their place in the last eight of UEFA’s elite youth competition.
The Gunners had started well, with Jon Toral, one of three La Masia academy products in Arsenal’s starting line-up, opening the scoring, but Shakhtar levelled through Andriy Boryachuk on the stroke of half-time and the Ukranian side looked the more likely victors in the early exchanges of the second period.
Arsenal’s quality eventually shone through, though, with substitute Kristoffer Olsson putting his side in the lead from the penalty spot after Chuba Akpom was bundled over in the area and Serge Gnabry, making his first appearance below first-team level for over three months, making it 3-1 shortly afterwards, rendering Glen Kamara’s late red card of little relevance.
Arsenal called upon the big guns for this fixture, with Gedion Zelalem, Hector Bellerin and Akpom joining Gnabry in the starting line-up. Isaac Hayden and Stefan O’Connor missed out through injury, with Leander Siemann and Kamara being elevated into the starting line-up.
subs: Olsson (for Zelalem, 65). Not used: Lipman, Jebb, Iwobi, Uade, Moore, Vickers.
Arsenal had some defending to do in the early stages, with goalkeeper Deyan Iliev, who impressed throughout, doing well to push a free-kick away for a corner. The corner was eventually cleared at the second attempt, with Arsenal subsequently carving out their first chance of note when Akpom rose to meet a cross, but the striker couldn’t direct his header on target.
Akpom, who will resume his loan spell with Coventry City tomorrow, then exchanged passes with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, with Akpom seeing his shot blocked and Maitland-Niles, who was Arsenal’s most dangerous player in the first-half, striking the woodwork with a fierce effort.
Maitland-Niles then directed a cross into the side-netting before shooting wide following intricate build-up play from Toral and Akpom. Akpom then used his considerable strength to brush off the attentions of a defender and subsequently sent the ball into the penalty area, but his hard work was to no avail as Gnabry couldn’t connect with the ball and Maitland-Niles failed to hit the target from close range when he perhaps should have done better.
Shakhtar were always a threat on the counter-attack, and Iliev was fortunate that he just managed to come off his line in time to smother the danger on one occasion. The visitors appeared to grow in confidence as the first-half progressed, sending one shot wide and then striking the near post after Bellerin was left with very little defensive support from his team-mates.
The pressure eventually told, with Boryachuk equalising just before half-time, with the number 11 firing home after being found from a free-kick before Iliev even had time to react.
Shakhtar’s dominance of proceedings continued after the break and Arsenal were very nearly punished when Zelalem attempted one turn too many and was robbed of possession. Shakhtar broke forwards at ease, but Artur Miranyan couldn’t apply the finishing touch when required.
Iliev then did well to claim a dangerous cross, then, at the other end, Gnabry took his time before unleashing a venomous effort that went just over the crossbar.
Shakhtar continued to press forwards when the opportunity presented itself, however, with Iliev making a rare misjudgement in spilling the ball following a free-kick. Thankfully, from Arsenal’s point of view, the visitors were unable to take advantage.
Shakhtar came close twice more, on one occasion striking the outside of the near post, but Arsenal sought to change things, with Olsson introduced in place of Zelalem, whose performance was much improved from his showing against Charlton Athletic in the FA Youth Cup on Friday.
Olsson had only been on the pitch for five minutes when he was called upon for the moment that would decide the game. Renowned as a calm penalty taker, time appeared to stand still as the Swedish midfielder readied himself, but he eventually dispatched the spot-kick with authority, putting Arsenal ahead at a crucial time.
The goal injected Arsenal with some much-needed confidence, with Gnabry and Maitland-Niles linking up well and Akpom then being bundled over in the penalty area again, only to see the flag raised for offside this time instead.
There was still time for more drama, though, with Akpom performing a superb piece of skill before having his subsequent shot saved. Maitland-Niles shot straight at the goalkeeper from the re-bound, but Gnabry was on hand to finish from close range and effectively secure the victory with 17 minutes remaining.
Arsenal, by this stage, were firmly in control, but they lost their composure a little when Kamara was sent off for a high challenge, ruling the midfielder out of the trip to Barcelona. Shakhtar threatened in the closing stages, but failed to seriously test Iliev and it was simply a matter of counting down the minutes until Arsenal’s victory was confirmed.
This was not a vintage performance by the youngsters, but it was still a very good one and, as they have demonstrated in numerous cup competitions this season, there is a strong sense of determination and belief amongst this group of players. Boreham Wood’s pitch did not exactly suit Arsenal’s passing game, but there were several positives to take from the evening, with Akpom continuing to impress, centre-back Julio Pleguezuelo developing well and Olsson delivering an impressive cameo after surprisingly being left out of the starting line-up.
Barcelona now await and, for Bellerin, Toral and Pleguezuelo in particular, the trip to Spain promises to be an intriguing one.