For all the criticism of the Arsenal youth system this season, and it has been considerable, there remains a genuine chance of Carl Laraman guiding the young Gunners to success in the FA Youth Cup for the first time since the much-lauded class of 2008/09.
There are still some considerable obstacles to overcome if that dream is to become a reality, however. Fulham, possessing the talents of Patrick Roberts and Moussa Dembele, are waiting in the Final, but, before then, Chelsea must be overcome in a two-legged Semi-Final, with the first assignment taking place at Stamford Bridge tomorrow evening.
Arsenal have already knocked Chelsea out of one youth tournament this season, prevailing in the U21 Premier League Cup, but the Blues have been involved in three of the past four Youth Cup Finals, winning the competition two years ago. They also dispatched of an Arsenal side containing Benik Afobe and Chuks Aneke at the Fourth Round stage in 2011.
Many of the Chelsea players will already be familiar to Arsenal. The likes of Jeremie Boga, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Izzy Brown, Andreas Christensen and Alex Kiwomya have been involved in numerous battles between the London rivals in the past few seasons, and there will be a further meeting between the two sides at U21 level later this month.
Arsenal’s list of talents is also lengthy. Dan Crowley, Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom are the most prominent, but Chelsea should also be wary of wingers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi, who have been in impressive form in this competition this season. Goalkeeper Josh Vickers, meanwhile, has also impressed, with Arsenal negotiating their way past the varied threats of Torquay United, Peterborough United, Charlton Athletic and Everton to reach this stage.
Jack Jebb was particularly influential against Everton, but, with Crowley back from injury, Jebb will most probably be amongst the substitutes tomorrow night. None of the players who started Monday’s U21 victory over Manchester City are expected to be involved from the offset, with Julio Pleguezuelo and Leander Siemann set to be deployed at the heart of the defence.
Arsenal will undoubtedly seek to create as many chances as possible, but they will know that a draw would not be the end of the world, particularly when their stellar record of playing at Emirates Stadium is taken into account. With a place in the Final at stake, this two-legged tie promises to be an intriguing match-up between two of the country’s most prominent academy teams.
Possible Arsenal team:
subs: Huddart, O’Connor, Jebb, Dobson, Lipman.