After an intense build-up, the day has finally arrived. Tonight, under the lights at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal U18s will do battle with their Liverpool counterparts for a place in the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup.
The path here hasn’t been easy. Although they swatted aside West Bromwich Albion in the 3rd round, the young Gunners had to strive arduously to overcome Swansea City and Coventry City to set up this glamour tie.
The Coventry game went to penalties and, given the quality of both sides, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the same scenario occurred tonight against Liverpool. There is an additional element of intrigue in that the visitors can call upon two Hale End alumni in Ovie Ejaria and Mich’el Parker, whilst Arsenal goalkeeper Hugo Keto, the hero in the last round, could have easily been lining up on the other side this evening, having spent time on trial at Liverpool in 2014 before joining the Gunners.
There are some key selection decisions that have to be made, not least up front, where Donyell Malen and Stephy Mavididi are both vying for a place in the side. Malen has four goals in eight U21 appearances this season, whilst Mavididi has eight goals in 14 appearances. It is an extremely difficult choice, although the latter may well be preferred given that he is slightly older.
Elsewhere, Ben Sheaf is fit to start, but deploying him in midfield could lead to another talented youngster, such as Marcus McGuane, being left out of the starting line-up.
The core of this Arsenal side, the likes of Chris Willock, Kaylen Hinds, Mavididi and Marc Bola, have progressed alongside eachother in recent seasons, with the crop having been added to by some of the most talented foreign youngsters available, such as Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Krystian Bielik and Malen.
This is the strongest squad that Arsenal have had in this competition for quite some time, a point evidenced by the fact that several starlets can’t even make the bench, and this is an excellent opportunity for the young Gunners to go all the way.
Doing so won’t be easy, however. The Liverpool side that they will be up against also possesses a resilient streak- they prevailed against Nottingham Forest in the fifth round with a goal in stoppage time.
Manchester City await the victors in the last four, but for now the focus has to be purely on tonight’s game. If Arsenal are at their best then they can certainly make it through.
Reine Adelaide-Hinds-C. Willock
Subs: Virginia, Da Graca, McGuane, Nelson, Malen.
Possible Liverpool team: George, Alexander-Arnold, Owens, Masterson, Parker, Phillips, Lennon, Kane, Woodburn, Alves, Ejaria.