UEFA Youth League- Last 16
Atletico Madrid 1 Arsenal 0
Just like last year Arsenal saw their UEFA Youth League adventure come to a disappointing conclusion in Spain, although on this occasion it was Atletico Madrid, rather than Barcelona, who inflicted the damage on the young Gunners.
Conceding early has been a concerning habit for Arsenal in this competition this season and, after taking the lead in the first minute, Atletico didn’t relinquish their advantage despite the best efforts of Frans De Kat’s side.
Attention will now turn to Arsenal’s FA Youth Cup campaign, which continues with a home tie against Crewe Alexandra next week, but this was still a hugely disappointing outcome for an Arsenal side that had shown some promise in their group stage fixtures.
subs: Keto, M. Bola (for Robinson, 52), Sheaf, Smith, Donovan, Eyoma, C. Willock.
Speculation had been rife that recent recruit Krystian Bielik could make his debut in this fixture, but the Polish midfielder is still working his way back towards full fitness following the Winter break in his home country.
There was some good news on the injury front, however, with Stefan O’Connor returning from a back problem to partner George Dobson at the heart of the defence. De Kat faced a difficult selection decision with regards to his strikers and in the end he elected to deploy both Stephy Mavididi and Kaylen Hinds from the offset, with the latter starting on the left wing at the expense of Chris Willock.
An Arsenal side closely resembling this one conceded a shock early goal in the Youth Cup against Royston Town last week and they didn’t learn their lesson here, with Amath Diedhiou sending the ball past Ryan Huddart in the first minute.
Arsenal looked to respond instantly through Dan Crowley, who shot wide, but Atletico were presented with an opportunity to double their advantage when Gedion Zelalem, not for the first time in his Arsenal career, squandered possession in a dangerous area. However, Andres Mohedano couldn’t direct his effort on target.
Alex Iwobi, the most senior player in this Arsenal team, was attempting to show his younger team-mates how it was done and the winger, who has been training frequently with the first-team of late, shot just wide from a difficult angle.
Arsenal continued to carve out meaningful opportunities after the interval, with Stefan O’Connor, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kaylen Hinds all trying their luck, but an equalising goal continued to elude De Kat’s side.
Arsenal were handed late hope when Atletico were reduced to ten men in the closing moments after Theo was dismissed, but still the young Gunners couldn’t find the breakthrough.
Their final chance fell to Maitland-Niles, a player who has already featured in the Champions League proper, but his attempt went just wide before the referee’s whistle signalled Arsenal’s exit from this competition a round earlier than last year.
This isn’t a vintage crop defensively, with the absence of the injured Tafari Moore and Julio Pleguezuelo keenly felt, but a side possessing the technical talents of Maitland-Niles, Zelalem, Crowley, Iwobi and Hinds will be disappointed not to have even reached the last eight of this competition.
One silver lining is that many of these players will be able to feature in this competition again next season, if indeed Arsenal are involved by virtue of the first-team securing Champions League qualification.