UEFA Youth League- Quarter-Final
Barcelona 4 (El Haddadi 31, Traore 50, 90, Kaptoum 88) Arsenal 2 (Gnabry 42, Akpom 83)
Arsenal exited the UEFA Youth League following an enthralling encounter in Barcelona this evening.
This was an incident-packed game, with both sides missing penalties and Arsenal goalkeeper Deyan Iliev being dismissed for his part in the concession of the Barcelona spot-kick.
Arsenal had started well, pressurising Barcelona high up the field, but they fell behind to Munir El Haddadi’s goal following a mistake from Stefan O’Connor. Serge Gnabry drew Arsenal level before the break only for the lively Adama Traore put an increasingly dominant Barcelona side ahead after the interval.
Steve Gatting’s side battled well with ten men with Chuba Akpom scoring to seemingly take the game to a penalty shoot-out, but Barcelona scored twice late on to break Arsenal’s hearts, with the introduction of midfielder Wilfrid Kaptoum proving pivotal. It was a difficult experience for Arsenal, with the lack of a natural defensive-midfielder in the absence of the suspended Glen Kamara and the injured Isaac Hayden proving rather costly.
Gedion Zelalem operated as the deepest-lying midfielder, whilst Kristoffer Olsson was also restored to the starting line-up having begun the previous game against Shakhtar Donetsk on the bench.
subs: Vickers (for Zelalem, 61), Jebb (for Gnabry, 71), Iwobi (for Toral, 84). Subs not used: Moore, Siemann, Smith, Lipman.
Arsenal closed down Barcelona from the first whistle, and they soon began to carve out attacking opportunities, with Gnabry doing well to turn into space before shooting over having been found by Akpom.
Barcelona responded, with Maxi Rolon sending an ambitious effort wide, but Arsenal were becoming increasingly dominant even if they didn’t have a goal to show for their efforts. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, deployed on the left flank, was particularly lively and Toral, one of three former Barcelona youngsters in the Arsenal starting line-up, then saw a shot saved from distance.
Arsenal’s hard work was rewarded when Akpom was fouled in the penalty area. Kristoffer Olsson, normally so reliable from the spot, was entrusted to take the penalty, but to the Swede’s horror his attempt struck a post. Barcelona had survived a massive scare and they were determined to make Arsenal pay, with Traore becoming increasingly influential.
The winger was fouled by Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill in the area but the referee waved play on. Just moments later, however, Barcelona were celebrating. Hector Bellerin played the ball back into the path of Stefan O’Connor, but the first-year scholar hesitated and his clearance was charged down at speed by El Haddadi, who diverted the ball into the net. Just as against Reading in the U21 Premier League Cup Semi-Final, a defensive error had cost Arsenal.
Barcelona could easily have doubled their advantage in the direct aftermath of that goal, with Traore exchanging passes with Joel Huertas before shooting over, before Traore was involved again, this time finding El Haddadi, whose effort was uncharacteristically wayward.
Arsenal, against the run of play, managed to conjure up a response before the interval. Olsson found Toral, who played a perfectly-weighted pass into the path of Gnabry, who finished well to score his fourth goal in the competition this season.
Any confidence Arsenal had gained from that strike evaporated soon after the break, with the introduction of Kaptoum providing Barcelona with a timely boost. The Cameroonian unlocked the Arsenal defence with a precise pass and Traore latched onto it to score, with Julio Pleguezuelo well out of position.
Barcelona, who had struggled to play their usual possession-based football in the first-half, were now utterly dominant. Kaptoum saw a shot deflected wide off O’Connor, then El Haddadi had a shot saved by Iliev, with Kaptoum firing over from the re-bound.
Matters then went from bad to worse for Arsenal, with El Haddadi latching onto a long pass before being brought down by Iliev in the area. The referee dismissed the Arsenal goalkeeper and it came as no surprise that Gedion Zelalem was the outfield player who was sacrificed to make way for substitute stopper Josh Vickers. Zelalem, who, it was announced today has signed his first professional contract at the club, struggled to have an influence on the game.
Vickers watched on as Elohor Godswill surprisingly sent his penalty high into the stands. Barcelona, having wasted that chance, seemed intent on creating as many opportunities as possible. El Haddadi shot wide, then Traore, following a mazy run, did likewise.
Then came the rather bizarre decision to take off Gnabry, Arsenal’s most dangerous player, with 20 minutes remaining. The change, which saw the German replaced by Jack Jebb, was presumably made with Gnabry’s first-team commitments in mind, but it still seemed a rather counter-productive move as far as this game was concerned.
Arsenal, suddenly, sensed some vulnerability in the Barcelona backline, with Toral heading agonisingly over from Ormonde-Ottewill’s cross, then Jebb coming close to finishing from Bellerin’s cross. Pleguezuelo then missed from close range, with the centre-back finding himself in unfamiliar territory just yards from the opposition goal.
Arsenal’s endurance paid off. Ormonde-Ottewill crossed from the left and Akpom managed to turn home amidst a crowd of bodies. The Arsenal youngsters were jubilant and it seemed as if they had done enough to at least earn a chance of prevailing in the penalty shoot-out, with there being no extra-time in this competition.
Those dreams were very short-lived, though, with Barcelona killing off the tie in the closing stages with two quickfire goals. First Kaptoum finished from Traore’s cross, then, with Arsenal’s entire defence having pushed upfield, Traore scored a breakaway goal to settle matters once and for all.
It was certainly an encounter that will live long in the memory, but Arsenal will be left asking what if? What if Hayden or Kamara had been available? What if Olsson had scored his penalty? What if Iliev hadn’t been sent off? In the end it didn’t go their way, and they struggled to cope with Barcelona in the second-half even before Iliev’s dismissal.
Arsenal have now exited two youth competitions in the space of four days, with the FA Youth Cup their only remaining chance of silverware. For parts of this game, particularly the first 25 minutes, they showed they could cope with Barcelona, but they left the Mini Estadi with more questions than answers.