U21 Premier League Cup Semi-Final
Arsenal 1 (Hayden 14 (pen) Reading 3 (Tanner 38, 102, Kelly 107) (a.e.t.)
By Jeorge Bird at Meadow Park, Borehamwood
Arsenal’s youngsters were eliminated from a cup competition for the first time this season after they were unable to withstand an onslaught of attacking pressure from Reading in today’s U21 Premier League Cup Semi-Final.
The young Gunners had taken the lead through Isaac Hayden’s well-placed penalty, but Reading levelled courtesy of Craig Tanner and, after neither side was able to find the net again in regulation time, Reading struck twice in extra-time to reach the Final and leave Arsenal heartbroken.
Reading were deserved winners, particularly when it is taken into account that they struck the crossbar twice during the course of the game, but Arsenal appeared to have one eye on Tuesday’s UEFA Youth League encounter with Barcelona, with Julio Pleguezuelo, Kristoffer Olsson and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill all left out of the starting line-up. Their misery was compounded by an injury suffered by winger Ryo, who delivered a disappointing performance before being stretchered off in the second-half to add to Arsenal’s increasing injury list.
Hayden kept battling in adversity, but some sluggish defending ultimately cost Arsenal and they will have to look elsewhere in order to secure silverware at youth level this campaign. This result brings to an end a run that saw the Gunners dispatch of Norwich City, Fulham and Chelsea, but Reading, who also prevailed when these sides met in the league recently, were just too strong in the end.
Stefan O’Connor returned from injury to partner Semi Ajayi at the heart of the defence, whilst Tafari Moore, who performed diligently throughout, was preferred to Ormonde-Ottewill at left-back. With Chuba Akpom back at Coventry City, Austin Lipman was tasked with leading the line.
subs: Siemann (for O’Connor, 71), Olsson (for Toral, 71), Iwobi (for Ryo, 76).
Arsenal signalled their attacking intent early on, with Moore seeing a cross gathered prior to O’Connor directing a header just wide from a corner.
Ajayi then conceded a free-kick in a dangerous area, with Reading eventually working the ball to Aaron Kuhl, who shot wide from distance. Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Macey then made a rather unorthodox save, somehow managing to prevent the ball from crossing the line after he had already dived to the ground.
Arsenal continued to press forwards when the opportunity presented itself, and they soon reaped the rewards. Thomas Eisfeld did well to find Lipman, who held on to the ball well and was eventually brought down in the penalty area. The referee immediately pointed to the spot, with captain Hayden taking responsibility and dispatching the ball past Dan Lincoln with ease.
Reading’s response was instant, with Ajayi and O’Connor doing well to deal with the danger, but Arsenal then squandered an inviting opportunity to extend their advantage when Hayden found Eisfeld, only for the German to lack his usual calm in front of goal and shoot over.
Reading tested Macey with a couple of efforts and then, just when it seemed as if Arsenal were going to take their lead into the break, the visitors struck, with Craig Tanner pouncing upon a moment of hesitation from Ajayi and Macey to equalise.
Arsenal, undeterred, started the second period well, with Jon Toral, who had previously been on the fringes of the game, playing a delightful back-heel into the path of Lipman, whose effort fizzed across the face of goal but was eventually kept out by the Reading defence.
Hayden then shot straight at Lincoln, but Reading were beginning to grow in confidence, with Tanner forcing a good save from Macey. O’Connor, for all his commendable interventions, was beginning to tire, with Leander Siemann entering the fray, whilst Olsson was introduced in place of Toral.
Glen Kamara’s header was saved, but Arsenal’s attacking momentum was halted by the injury to Ryo, which eventually led to him being replaced by Alex Iwobi.
Macey then had to rush off his line to clear a Reading attack, with Olsson also making an important intervention, but Arsenal’s attacking movements lacked conviction, particularly when Olsson rather rushed his effort when Iwobi found the Swedish midfielder with an incisive pass.
Tanner nearly won it at the end of regulation time after bamboozling the Arsenal defence with a mesmerising run, but Macey was on hand to make an excellent save and keep Arsenal in the tie.
As the soon as extra-time commenced, however, Reading seemed far more adept in every aspect. Iwobi was closed down efficiently when he sought to shoot, then Macey somehow managed to divert the ball onto his own crossbar when he looked beaten.
Reading eventually prevailed, with Siemann failing to clear properly and Tanner finishing well beyond Macey to make it 2-1. Arsenal’s players looked crestfallen and there was little they could muster in terms of attacking momentum. Their cause wasn’t helped by the rather bizarre decision to deploy Hayden as an attacking midfielder in the latter stages, whilst Olsson operated deeper.
Any chance Arsenal had of somehow salvaging this tie came and went early in the second period of extra-time when a cross was sent in and the diminutive Liam Kelly headed in to make it 3-1.
There was no coming back from that, and Arsenal’s lengthy run in this competition had come to an abrupt end, with Reading reaching the Final, where they’ll take on either Manchester City or Burnley.
Arsenal have much else to focus on, including the UEFA Youth League and the FA Youth Cup, but you cannot help but feel that, with their strongest side out there today, they may well have found a way past this determined Reading outfit.
Matt Macey- 6- Made some good saves and commanded his area well, but will have been disappointed to concede three times.
Hector Bellerin-6- Improving defensively and provided Arsenal with some much-needed attacking momentum.
Semi Ajayi-5- Good reading of the game, but his wayward passing can prove costly at times.
Stefan O’Connor-6- Battled well before tiring on his return from injury.
Tafari Moore-7- Excellent in an unfamiliar position as he read the game well and aided the attacking movement.
Isaac Hayden-7- Made some unnecessary challenges but drove the team forward and dispatched his penalty well.
Glen Kamara-6- Helped to protect the defence but didn’t see as much of the ball as he would have liked.
Ryo-5- Passes went astray and failed to provide any attacking momentum before succumbing to injury, although he did work hard defensively.
Thomas Eisfeld-6- Made some good passes but could perhaps have done better with his first-half chance.
Jon Toral-6- More effective in the early stages of the second-half but wasn’t heavily involved.
Austin Lipman-6- Worked hard up front and won the penalty, but received very little support.
Leander Siemann-5- Has improved tremendously in his overall play, but his mistake was costly.
Kristoffer Olsson-5- Not at his most effective.
Alex Iwobi-5- Struggled to make a significant impact.
U18 Premier League- Game 24
Norwich City 1 Arsenal 0
It was a disappointing day for the Academy all round as Arsenal U18s suffered their twelfth league defeat of the season this morning, losing 1-0 away to Norwich City.
subs: Mavididi (for Robinson, 65). Not used: Vickers, Johnson, Olomola, Ejaria.
Kevin Lokko scored the only goal of the game, with Carl Laraman’s starting line-up containing five schoolboys and just three second-year scholars. They host Leicester City next weekend.