U21 Premier League- Division Two Play-off Semi-Final
Arsenal 2 (C. Willock (49, 80) Blackburn Rovers 1 (Rankin-Costello (64)
By Jeorge Bird @Emirates Stadium
Arsenal U21s edged closer to promotion to the top tier of second-string football as a brace from the superb Chris Willock was sufficient to overcome Blackburn Rovers at Emirates Stadium tonight.
The young Gunners’ cause was helped by the involvement of several senior players, not least Santi Cazorla, who was excellent on his first appearance of 2016 and provided the assist for Willock’s opener.
Tomas Rosicky, Calum Chambers and Serge Gnabry also featured, but Blackburn managed to equalise after Cazorla’s withdrawal and Arsenal had to battle arduously to regain the lead, which they eventually managed to do when Willock doubled his tally with a fine strike ten minutes from time.
Arsenal now face Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium next week in the Play-off Final.
With Chambers operating at centre-back, captain Julio Pleguezuelo moved across to right-back. Meanwhile, as several players are away at the U17 European Championships, Edward Nketiah, who has been prolific for Arsenal at U18 level, was named on the bench.
C. Willock-Rosicky- Gnabry
Subs: Crowley (for Cazorla, 62). Not used: Huddart, Johnson, Hinds, Nketiah.
Despite Arsenal fielding a significantly stronger side, it was Blackburn that started in the ascendancy, with the visiting team having an effort deflected wide after Stephy Mavididi squandered possession.
Arsenal soon started to come into their own, however, with Gnabry coming close to scoring twice in quick succession before Ben Sheaf’s effort was saved.
Willock was starting to become increasingly influential, with the winger causing numerous problems for the Blackburn defence.
Rosicky and Gnabry both tried their luck, but Arsenal struggled to make the breakthrough against a Blackburn side that was defending diligently.
It appeared increasingly clear that if Arsenal were to break the deadlock then Willock would have a prominent part to play in proceedings. The England youth international did well to find Mavididi, but the striker’s goalscoring touch deserted him on this occasion.
Arsenal kept probing, with Willock and Gnabry having further attempts, but Blackburn managed to get to the interval without having conceded.
Although Blackburn had some sporadic attacks of their own, the general pattern of the game was set by this point, with Arsenal pushing forwards with regularity.
Cazorla, a European Championship winner no less, was clearly playing in second gear, but he was still far too good for this level, with the Spaniard spraying passes around the field with consummate ease.
One such pass helped to finally end Blackburn’s resilience, with Cazorla threading the ball through to Willock, who finished calmly but celebrated wildly.
Arsenal were buoyed by that goal and immediately set about attempting to double their advantage, with Cazorla playing some superb passes.
Having completed 62 minutes, Cazorla was replaced by Dan Crowley and Arsenal suddenly lost all sense of cohesion as Blackburn edged back into the game.
That wasn’t particularly Crowley’s fault, more a reflection on how much the young Gunners had been relying on Cazorla.
Arsenal weren’t able to retain possession quite so well and Blackburn took full advantage, with Joe Rankin-Costello getting the better of Matt Macey.
For a while it seemed as if Arsenal’s hopes of promotion were going to disappear there and then, with Blackburn growing in confidence.
Mavididi missed what, at the time, appeared to be a pivotal chance and extra-time and the possibility of penalties was looming.
Willock, though, had other ideas and proceeded to score the winner with a fine individual strike to send Arsenal through to the Final.
The starlet’s performance tonight provided further evidence to suggest that he could well soon be playing with players such as Cazorla on a regular basis.