FA Youth Cup semi-final, second leg
Arsenal 5 (Balogun 18, Ballard 20, Burton 23, Smith Rowe 34 (pen), M. Smith 90) Blackpool 0 (Arsenal win 7-2 on aggregate)
By Jeorge Bird @ Emirates Stadium
Arsenal U18s made it through to the FA Youth Cup final for the first time in nine years with a 5-0 demolition of Blackpool at Emirates Stadium tonight as Emile Smith Rowe produced a midfield masterclass.
With the first leg having finished 2-2, Arsenal knew they had much work to do in the second leg in order to get to the final but they managed to do that, with Smith Rowe very influential.
The extremely talented youngster, deployed in the number ten position, found the net himself from the penalty spot following a superb burst forwards, whilst Folarin Balogun, Danny Ballard, Robbie Burton and substitute Matt Smith also managed to get on the scoresheet as the resilience that Blackpool demonstrated in the initial tie evaporated.
Arsenal will now face Chelsea, who have won each of the last four editions of this competition, in a two-legged final, but for now Kwame Ampadu’s side can reflect on a dominant display which, especially in the first half, was a joy to watch.
Reiss Nelson, as expected, wasn’t involved, whilst Trae Coyle was surprisingly omitted from the starting lineup, with James Olayinka deployed in central midfield. Dominic Thompson, meanwhile, started at left-back with Tobi Omole not involved.
Subs: Saka (for Amaechi), Coyle (for Smith Rowe), M. Smith (for Balogun). Not used: Okonkwo, Olowu.
Blackpool had put up a terrific fight in the first leg but it soon became apparent that Arsenal, with home advantage, were going to be too strong for them on this occasion.
Arsenal were dominant in the early stages, with the lively Burton hitting an effort over the crossbar.
Xavier Amaechi, who enjoyed an excellent game, then started to cause all manner of problems for the Blackpool defence with his searing speed and the winger swung in a cross which picked out Folarin Balogun, who shot wide.
Balogun, who frequently sought to drift inside from the right flank, then rattled the woodwork after he was located by powerful full-back Vontae Daley-Campbell, and it seemed only a matter of time before Arsenal took the lead.
Balogun and Tyreece John-Jules both had shots saved in quick succession but then Arsenal did make it 1-0 as Smith Rowe initiated the move, finding Amaechi, who played in Balogun again.
On this occasion the attacker made no mistake as he headed home in the 18th minute to put Arsenal ahead both on the night and in the tie.
Daley-Campbell shot wide and then it was 2-0, with Amaechi the architect again as his corner was headed home emphatically by captain Ballard.
Blackpool were crumbling and Arsenal took full advantage as Burton made it 3-0 with a neat finish following further good work from the influential Smith Rowe.
That appeared to be the tie over, but Arsenal were eager to continue to dominate and Balogun almost scored again following an intricate team move but his effort lacked conviction on this occasion.
Arsenal’s quick movement and passing saw them continue to thrive and Dominic Thompson, up from left-back, hit the side-netting after Amaechi played the ball into his path.
Then came the most memorable moment of the match as Smith Rowe embarked on a tremendous run past several Blackpool players.
Had Smith Rowe not been hauled down it could have resulted in a spectacular goal, but as it transpired a penalty was awarded and the starlet stepped up to take it himself, making no mistake as Arsenal went 4-0 ahead.
Blackpool threatened intermittently in the second half, with Joao Virginia having to claim a cross, but Arsenal were still firmly in control of proceedings.
Smith Rowe, so elegant in possession, played a delightful ball to Amaechi, but the latter’s effort was saved.
Burton then found John-Jules but the striker, who is usually impressive in front of goal, was unable to score.
Arsenal brought on Bukayo Saka and later Trae Coyle in place of Amaechi and Smith Rowe and they continued to threaten even without the services of two of their standout players.
Blackpool’s chances of securing a shock win had long since diminished and their misery was compounded when Jack Newton was given a second yellow card for hauling back Balogun.
Smith came on for Balogun and the midfielder, who has trained with the first-team recently, managed to add further gloss to the scoreline in the closing stages from close range, with fellow substitute Coyle playing a clever no-look pass in the build up.
It is important to take the standard of opposition into account, but this was still an excellent display from Arsenal, with Smith Rowe and Amaechi especially standing out.
The likes of Burton, Balogun and James Olayinka can also be pleased with their displays and the overall team performance deserves much credit.
Defeating a highly regarded Chelsea team will be no easy task, but Arsenal will be in determined mood and if Smith Rowe can replicate this performance then the Youth Cup could be heading back to north London.