UEFA Youth League- Quarter-Final
Barcelona v Arsenal – Mini Estadi- 6pm (local time)- Live on Eurosport
For years this was just a dream. Every season there would be suggestions that Arsenal and the other leading English youth sides should be able to test themselves against the best that Europe has to offer. Last season they got a taste of that reality when they dispatched of Inter Milan in the Next Gen Series, but tomorrow they will finally have the opportunity to take on the might of Barcelona in a competitive fixture.
The intriguing sub-plot to this fixture, which was secured following Arsenal’s victory over Shakhtar Donetsk last month, is that three graduates of the La Masia Academy, Hector Bellerin, Jon Toral and Julio Pleguezuelo, will be back in Spain to face their former team-mates at the Mini Estadi, in the shadow of the Nou Camp. If they are serious about winning the trophy, however, there can be little time for sentiment.
Arsenal have already exited one cup competition at youth level after they were defeated by Reading in extra-time in the U21 Premier League Cup, and it will require a gargantuan effort to negotiate their way past Chelsea in their two-legged FA Youth Cup tie. The challenge posed by Barcelona, in particular their prolific goalscorer Munir El Haddadi, who has scored seven goals in seven appearances in this competition this season, would appear to be even tougher, but Arsenal, with first-team squad members Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem to call upon, have enough about them to cause the Catalans serious damage.
They were provided with a boost this morning when Dan Crowley returned to training after recovering from his latest injury set-back, although the 16 year old did not travel to Spain as he is still lacking match fitness. There is another notable absentee, with Glen Kamara suspended following his dismissal against Shakhtar.
Isaac Hayden should be restored to the starting line-up after impressing in difficult circumstances against Reading, whilst winger Ainsley Maitland-Niles is likely to be full of confidence having trained with the first-team again on Saturday. For all his goals in the Youth Cup, Maitland-Niles, who featured in the NextGen Series last season as a schoolboy, has yet to score in European competition, so he will be seeking to rectify that tomorrow.
Jack Jebb also trained with the senior side at the weekend and is in a rich vein of form at present, but the 18 year old is likely to start the game on the bench with the likes of Gnabry, Zelalem and Toral poised to be included in the starting line-up. Chuba Akpom is available having once again been temporarily recalled from his loan spell with Coventry City.
It would be churlish in the extreme to not spell out the dangers that Barcelona are capable of posing to the Arsenal defence. They annihilated all before them in the group stage, dropping just two points from their six games and scoring 20 goals in the process, before trouncing Copenhagen 4-1 in the Last 16.
El Haddadi is their principal threat, but Argentinian Maxi Rolon is another danger. Malian winger Adama Traore, who made a fleeting appearance in La Liga earlier this season, should also be involved.
Arsenal’s youngsters will be seeking to enjoy the occasion first and foremost- games against Barcelona at any level do not come along all that often- but they have also gone to Spain to win and, if they can replicate the performance from their opening group stage game against Marseille, when Gnabry was imperious, they may have a chance of doing just that.
Possible Arsenal team:
subs: Vickers, Siemann, Olsson, Jebb, Iwobi, Lipman, Moore.
Barcelona squad: (from) Ondoa, Suarez, Godswill, Riera, Quintilla, Garcia, Palencia, Tarin, Ortega, Enguene, Huertas, Kaptoum, Alex, Antonio, Ebwelle, El Haddadi, Rolon, Godoy, El Ouriachi, Traore.