19 March 2014

Barcelona 4-2 Arsenal: Don't let the scoreline fool you...

The U19s crashed out of the UEFA Youth League after a 4-2 loss to Barcelona, but the scoreline flatters the hosts a bit as Arsenal were down to ten men for much of the second half after keeper Deyan Iliev was sent off. However, the boys fought admirably, and it was only in the final minutes that Barcelona were able to take advantage, scoring twice in the game's final minutes to secure passage through to the semifinals.

However, despite the setback, there were positives aplenty as we look to the youth of today and size up their prospects as players for tomorrow. For as much as progress in the cup might have been nice, the spirit and skill on display offered exciting glimpses of what's to come.

Early on, our boys pressed and harried Barca early, and it seemed as if we might even take the early lead when, in the 19th minute, Chuba Akpom drew a penalty, but Kris Olsson hit the post. Parallels to the first team's struggles with Bayern, sadly, didn't end there. Barca's Muni El Haddadi got deep into the box and was able to block a clearance from Stefan O'Connor (just back from injury and showing it) and past Iliev, who could do little to stop it. It may have come a bit against the run of play, but that's how things go sometimes. If Olsson had put home the spot-kick minutes earlier, well...

However, it was through Serge Gnabry that we found an equalizer after a splendid pass from Jon Toral, and it looked like the momentum was again ours...but only for a few minutes as Barca's Traoré (who menaced most of the second half) scored, and it was shortly after this that Iliev was sent off for ataking down El Haddadi in a manner that might remind us of Szczesny's send-off against Aston Villa, if not Bayern. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It seems awfully harsh to award a penalty-kick and send off the keeper in these situations. By the books, yes, the call looked to be correct, but as Bayern's Neuer pointed out, the kick is penalty enough. So it goes.

However, as with the Bayern match, sometimes, karma steps in to set things right, and the spot-kick soared ludicrously high. With the match 2-1, a better effort would have slammed shut the door on Arsenal's prospects and hopes, but instead, Arsenal seemed to screw up their courage and find some fight-back; in the 83rd minute, Akpom foudn an equalizer after turning in a cross from Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill. With the score level, it looked as if our ten-man squad might earn a shoot-out, which would almost feel like a victory all its own after fighting bravely through a tough away-match. It was not to be, sadly, as Barca found two late goals (in the last three minutes, I might add) to secure the victory.

Among the positives were, of course, Gnabry and Akpom. Gnabry, having gathered experience with the first team, should be expected to deliver, and his goal was a welcome sign of his ability to do so. However, the knife cuts both ways, as he was taken off with about 20 minutes left despite the threat he continued to show both through his dribble and passing. The substitution may reflect a desire to keep him fresh for first-team action, such as the trip to Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Akpom also impressed with his play up top, creating chances for himself and others (and converting for the late equalizer) even though he frequently struggled to get the ball amidst Barca's defense and swarming midfield. His link-ups with Gnabry in particular were tantalizing and, while Gnabry has already earned a few cameos with the first team, Akpom may not be too far behind.

Not to be out done, Jon Toral also made positive contributions. He's a Barca product, and it's not a slight to suggest that he both felt more comfortable and more energized to be playing against former teammates in familiar surroundings. He came close to scoring one for himself while creating a fair number of chances for teammates.

Less impressive was Gedion Zelalem, despite the trills that his name has elicited recently. This may have been due to his role as a holding midfielder; playing deep in front of the back four may not have been the best spot from which to take advantage of his passing and vision as it demands that he play more defensively. It would be akin to asking someone like Özil to play DM instead of Flamini (not to equate Zelalem with Özil other than to suggest creativity and passing over defensive grit). Without Glen Kamara available, though, it was worth finding space on the pitch for Zelalem. That it didn't quite click is too bad.

All in all, it was a strong display despite the outcome. Going into the Mini Estadi to take on one of the world's best youth sides was never going to be easy, and our boys acquitted themselves far better thantthe scoreline suggests.