U21 Premier League Cup Semi-Final
Arsenal v Reading
Meadow Park, Saturday March 15th, kick-off: 3pm
Arsenal’s youngsters successfully negotiated their way past the first obstacle in their considerable Cup schedule by dispatching of Everton U18s in the FA Youth Cup on Monday, but tomorrow brings another challenge, with Reading’s strong U21 side standing between them and a place in the Final of the U21 Premier League Cup.
Arsenal reached this stage by edging past Chelsea in extra-time over six weeks ago, but, since then, they have lost the talents of goalscorer Benik Afobe, who joined Sheffield Wednesday on loan shortly afterwards. With Chuba Akpom likely to be involved for Coventry City at the weekend, Steve Gatting could call upon 18 year old Austin Lipman to lead the line at Meadow Park, a ground he knows well following his stint with Boreham Wood earlier in the campaign.
Ideally, Arsenal would field as strong a side as possible in this game, with the likes of Carl Jenkinson and Ryo having featured in previous rounds, but that may not be possible given the injury situation that is currently afflicting the first-team squad. Isaac Hayden should, however, be available, despite making the bench for the senior side in Munich in midweek.
The aptly named Semi Ajayi has played an important part in Arsenal reaching the Semi-Finals, with the imposing centre-back playing every minute of the victories away to Norwich City and Fulham and particularly impressing against Chelsea. Ajayi will be an important player tomorrow, and he will be hoping that the defence is far more organised than they were against Reading in the league last month, when the Royals prevailed 2-1 by capitalising upon some slack marking.
Many of Reading’s key players will be familiar to Arsenal following the encounters that have taken place between the two sides over the past couple of years. Niall Keown, the son of legendary Arsenal centre-back Martin, should feature, along with dangerous midfielder Aaron Tshibola. Striker Gozie Ugwu, who has spent time on loan at various clubs, is another player to be wary of, as is fellow forward Dominic Samuel, who has already represented the Reading first-team.
The winners will take on either Manchester City or Burnley in the two-legged Final and progression to that stage would be a hugely commendable feat for Arsenal, not to mention a rather surprising one given their indifferent league form. Those that are eligible could be forgiven for allowing their mind to drift ahead a little towards next week’s UEFA Youth League encounter in Barcelona, but, nonetheless, they are certainly capable of achieving a positive result tomorrow.
This game heralds the start of a challenging run of fixtures for the youth sides at various levels, with the alarming possibility being that, should they progress on all fronts, the young Gunners could be involved in 24 fixtures between now and the end of April. Indeed, tomorrow morning the U18s are scheduled to face Norwich City away, although the team for that game, if it goes ahead, is likely to be comprised mainly of schoolboys. All the players can do is take each game individually, and, hopefully, they will have at least one trophy to show for their efforts by the end of the campaign.
subs: Iliev, Moore, Kamara, Jebb, Maitland-Niles.