U21 Premier League- Division 2- Play Off Final
Arsenal 3 (Willock, Mavididi (2) Aston Villa 1 (Hepburn-Murphy)
By Jeorge Bird @Emirates Stadium
Arsenal U21s secured their place in the top tier of second-string football with a hard-fought victory over their Aston Villa counterparts at Emirates Stadium tonight.
Steve Gatting’s side contained much first-team experience, with Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Calum Chambers and Joel Campbell all starting, but it was two of the club’s young starlets, Chris Willock and Stephy Mavididi, who proved to be the difference.
Willock was initially only named on the bench, but he was catapulted into the starting line-up following the late withdrawal of Serge Gnabry, and that proved to be a blessing in disguise as the winger equalised after an error from Matt Macey had allowed Rushian Hepburn-Murphy to give Villa the lead.
Willock later turned provider for Mavididi, and the latter doubled his tally in the closing stages as Arsenal, at long last, secured their place amongst the elite.
Campbell-Reine Adelaide-C. Willock
Subs: Sheaf (for Cazorla, 82), Hinds (for Campbell, 82). Not used: Keto, Johnson, Nketiah.
Arsenal started slowly and they very nearly gave away a goal in the early exchanges as Jeff Reine-Adelaide needlessly squandered possession, but Villa were unable to take advantage.
Jerrell Sellars then fired over as Villa cranked up the pressure, and Arsenal eventually crumbled, with Macey losing control of the ball, and Hepburn-Murphy, who featured for Villa’s first-team last weekend, capitalised.
Arsenal sought to respond instantly, with the ever dangerous Willock seeing his effort cleared off the line. Cazorla, Mavididi and Coquelin all had chances to score, but it was Willock who would equalise as he applied the finishing touch to a slick move involving Cazorla and Mavididi.
Villa had opportunities to equalise before the break, but Arsenal stood firm and went into the break level.
Some supporters thought Willock had doubled his tally early in the second half, but the winger’s shot struck the side-netting.
It wasn’t long, though, before Arsenal went ahead, with Willock turning provider on this occasion for Mavididi, who headed in.
Villa’s confidence was waning, as demonstrated by Sellars’ attempt, which went way over the crossbar.
Macey then somewhat redeemed himself with a good save, before Kaylen Hinds and Ben Sheaf entered the fray in place of Campbell and Cazorla.
Hinds had a header saved, and then Mavididi added further gloss to the scoreline with a calm finish.
There was no way back for Villa after that point, and Arsenal lifted the trophy aloft in front of a small crowd.
Their form may have tailed off a little towards the end of the campaign, and they were reliant on the help of some senior stars along the way, but the important thing is that Arsenal U21s are going up.
Playing against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool will surely be hugely beneficial for the development of the Arsenal youngsters.
As far as tonight’s game is concerned, Willock and Mavididi were both hugely impressive, whilst Cazorla and Coquelin also caught the eye.
Several of the players on show tonight won’t be regularly involved at this level next season, but those that do feature will be especially grateful for what has been achieved.