By Declan Taylor
Arsenal have one hand on the FA Youth Cup after securing a deserved 4-1 victory in the Final’s first leg at Emirates Stadium on Friday.
Despite a slow start, the Gunners soon found their feet. Gilles Sunu stroked the hosts ahead after 20 minutes before Jack Wilshere doubled the advantage from the spot just past the half-hour.
Alex Kacaniklic’s fierce volley within two minutes provided Liverpool with a glimmer of hope but Steve Bould’s side made an imperious second-half performance count.
Sanchez Watt, who came off the bench on the quarter-hour, restored his side’s two-goal advantage 12 minutes after the interval with a sublime chip. Then, nine minutes later, Captain Jay Emmanuel-Thomas nodded home a fourth.
It could – and definitely should - have been five in stoppage time but the Assistant Referee wrongly flagged substitute Rhys Murphy’s goal offside.
Still, the Gunners travel to Anfield, exactly 20 years after Mickey Thomas’ title-clinching strike, as firm favourites to lift the Cup for the first time since 2001.
With a fully-fit squad, Bould had explained how a couple of his players would be left “disappointed” on the night. Scorer of the winning goal in the Premier Academy League Final against Tottenham, Murphy, was one of those. The striker made way for fit-again Wilshere who slotted in behind lone frontman Sunu.
Luke Ayling, who picked up a red card in that clash with Spurs, was able to play as the suspension does not kick in until 14 days after the offence. The youngster will be available for Anfield too. He slotted in at centre-half in the same back five that has started every Youth Cup fixture so far.
Before the game, the manager praised the competition because it gives his young players a taste of how senior pros live. And that was certainly the case at the Emirates with a noisy 33,662 in attendance.
But it was the minority of Liverpool fans who would have been most encouraged in the early stages. The visitors started with verve and the Gunners operated mostly on the break in the first quarter-hour.
There was disappointment for Emmanuel Frimpong who fell awkwardly after a challenge in the centre-circle. The touch-tackling midfielder, so influential in this Cup run, was replaced by Sanchez Watt in the 15th minute forcing Bould to adopt a more orthodox 4-4-2.
And it would almost immediately pay dividends.
Wilshere, who had dropped into central midfield alongside Francis Coquelin, found Lansbury 30 yards from goal and the 18-year-old slid an inch-perfect through-ball into the path of Sunu. The Frenchman took one touch before coolly planting his strike past Dean Bouzanis. It was enough to raise a smile from his watching countryman Arsène Wenger.
Arsenal continued to threaten and their second goal wasn’t long in coming. Emmanuel-Thomas’ floated free-kick evaded everyone waiting in the area but cannoned back off the post. Watt was first to the loose ball and, when Karl Clair hauled down the striker, referee Lee Mason had no choice but to point to the spot.
Wilshere, confident as ever, stroked the penalty into Bouzanis’ bottom left-hand corner.
But, just as the first glint of silverware may have been entering Arsenal minds, Liverpool struck back within two minutes.
Chris Buchtmann’s cut-back found Kacaniklic who volleyed past Shea from the edge of the area at the second attempt. In truth, it was the least the visitors deserved for their first-half endeavours.
There was no doubting that Watt’s introduction had changed Arsenal for the better before the break and the striker finally made a mark of his own after 57 minutes.
Once again Wilshere was the architect with another sumptuous through-ball but Watt's finish was even better. The striker took the pass in his stride before delicately chipping the advancing Bouzanis. For an 18-year-old, it was a finish that oozed maturity.
Cue party time in the Stadium with a relentless tide of Mexican waves sweeping through the bumper bottom tier. And it got better for Arsenal in the 66th minute when Emmanuel-Thomas grabbed the fourth of the evening.
The captain glided in at the front post to steer Lansbury’s inswinging corner inside the far post. It wasn’t only his finish which was first-team standard, his celebratory dance was one to rival even Messrs Adebayor and Eboue.
Liverpool needed something, anything, but it was the hosts who were doing all the threatening with Lansbury and substitute Murphy both going close from the edge of the area.
In stoppage time, Murphy thought he had sealed the deal with a superb swivel and angled finish just inside the box. The flag was up but the replays showed that the striker was a good two yards onside.
But a three-goal lead is still a thoroughly welcome one. It means that Arsenal can travel to Anfield on May 26 and LOSE by two clear goals and still lift the trophy.
The Mexican waves continued as the referee called time on the contest. Should Liverpool wave goodbye to the Cup?
- Emmanuel-Thomas Goal!
- Frimpong 15
- Wilshere 90 Goal!
- Sunu 74 Goal!
- Watt 15 Goal!
- Murphy 74
- Henderson 90
- Bouzanis Yellow Card
- Ayala Yellow Card
- Kennedy Yellow Card
- Kacaniklic 63 Goal!
- Valle 80
- Ince Yellow Card
- Ecclestone 63
- Robinson 80