Tom J Doyle watches Arsenal join Aston Villa, Chelsea and Sporting Lisbon in the NextGen semi-finals...
The Premier League may have disappointed in the Champions League this season, but future continental battles look more promising with Arsenal, Aston Villa and Chelsea qualifying for the semi-finals of the NextGen Under-19s tournament.
After knocking out Inter in the last round amid appalling conditions, the Gunners overcame CSKA Moscow 1-0 at a bitterly cold Emirates Stadium on Monday night to set up a Good Friday derby clash with Chelsea in Italy. Villa will face Sporting Lisbon on the same day, with both ties to be held at the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia near Lake Como to decide the finalists on Easter Monday at the same location.
Terry BurtonÃ¢ÂÂs side kept their composure in front of the 6,684-strong crowd to deny the promising Russian youngsters, with Serge Gnabry grabbing the headlines once again with an all-action display and the gameÃ¢ÂÂs decisive goal after 53 minutes. While the talented 17-year-old caught the eye with barnstorming runs and a composed finish from 12 yards, the GunnersÃ¢ÂÂ back line must also take huge credit for yet another clean sheet to cement their reputation as one of the favourites to lift the cup.
From the first whistle it was clear that like Arsene WengerÃ¢ÂÂs first team, BurtonÃ¢ÂÂs side were intent on controlling possession. For their part, CSKA looked formidable on the counter with the fine touch and clever passing of forward Konstantin Bazelyuk causing problems along the front line. While ArsenalÃ¢ÂÂs lax early passing resulted in a number of promising breakaways, the Russian side were unable to take advantage Ã¢ÂÂ due in no small part to the pace and positioning of centre-back pairing Sead Hajrovic and Isaac Hayden.
With the GunnersÃ¢ÂÂ full-backs Hector Bellerin and Martin Angha given licence to roam forward, CSKA could and should have punished the hosts, but the formation spoke volumes about BurtonÃ¢ÂÂs faith in his central defensive partnership. They made block after block, with Hajrovic particularly dominant in the air; where other players might have become flustered, the 19-year-oldÃ¢ÂÂs calm use of the ball in the air throughout marked him out as a definite talent.
Gnabry (left) celebrates scoring the decisive goal with Chuba Akpom
Ã¢ÂÂI thought the whole back four defended when they had to,Ã¢ÂÂ Burton said afterwards. Ã¢ÂÂMoscow are a counter-attack side and hoped to hit us on the break, so we had to concentrate and be ready for that Ã¢ÂÂ which I thought they did very well.Ã¢ÂÂ
Bellerin was perhaps the gameÃ¢ÂÂs standout performer, and may well present Wenger with another option at right-back in the near future given Bacary SagnaÃ¢ÂÂs current contract situation. The 18-year-old Catalan attacked with real intent and sent over a few delicious early crosses, one of which appeared to be headed over the line by Gnabry although no goal was given.
Bellerin played a decisive part in the goal, executing a neat one-two with Gnabry, and was a menace throughout down the flank. Given his confidence on the ball it comes as no surprise he has been converted from a winger since his days at Barcelona, with Burton saying of his performance: Ã¢ÂÂWhen he gets into the final third heÃ¢ÂÂs a useful attacker, and I thought he defended well.Ã¢ÂÂ
Although Bellerin made a number of timely blocks, there are still some defensive flaws to be ironed out of his game: he was caught out twice as the game drew to a close, but his misjudgement of a long ball went unpunished and one pass bounced off his backside when well out of position. Perhaps the talented players are sometimes also the lucky ones.
On the other side, Martin Angha offered the rare sight of a wing-back who is unafraid of venturing infield from the left, and on at least three occasions troubled the CSKA centre-backs with incisive dribbling towards goal.
Angha (right) was happy to cut inside from wide on the Gunners' left
The Swiss teenagerÃ¢ÂÂs marauding display deserved a goal and only quick reactions from visiting keeper Sergey Revyakin denied him in the second half. While the 6ft2in Angha has a battle in dislodging Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs on the left, he has the raw talent and physique to give Wenger food for thought.
Gnabry was a pest throughout, always looking to find space in between the lines, and his match-winning display correctly deserves the plaudits. The German looks to be the real deal and with such pace and power at a young age, bigger games surely await him. But as well as the attacking strength in the squad, two consecutive 1-0 wins over cultured opponents shows BurtonÃ¢ÂÂs players are quickly proving how to marry intricate passing football with a miserly defence Ã¢ÂÂ against any opponents.
Ã¢ÂÂYou never know how theyÃ¢ÂÂre going to react on the big stage because this is a big occasion for them,Ã¢ÂÂ said Burton. Ã¢ÂÂWhat you want them to do is play the game and not the occasion, which they did and I was pleased with all of them.Ã¢ÂÂ
Captain Nico Yennaris had a quieter game than usual but marshalled the space in front of the back line well, and believes occasions like this can only help him and others intent on making the grade at Arsenal.
Ã¢ÂÂI think itÃ¢ÂÂll help most of the players that are coming up through the youth system as it gives another chance to show what they can do, especially in games like this against European opponents,Ã¢ÂÂ said Yennaris. Ã¢ÂÂThe manager is looking at what they can do in those types of games against different opposition so itÃ¢ÂÂs a great opportunity.Ã¢ÂÂ
After another confident display built upon a solid defence and intricate forward play, the future looks bright for this Arsenal U19s side; they are talented, undaunted by the big stage, and perhaps most important of all for Gunners fans, hungry for silverware.