When it was put to Nico Yennaris that CSKA Moscow were one of the favourites to win the NextGen Series and had already beaten the likes of Chelsea, Ajax and PSV, the answer was bullish.
“Well they haven’t played us yet,” the captain replied with a smile. It is an attitude that reflects the quiet optimism coursing through this talented Arsenal squad.
The competition has thrown up all manner of obstacles for Terry Burton’s men since their first game nearly seven months ago, against Marseille. They have travelled to Greece, France, Spain and Italy. They have had to deal with serious injuries, red cards and contentious decisions. They have competed on pitches more suitable for water polo than football, and played on surfaces more suitable for livestock than athletes. And yet they have prevailed.
They have found that football intelligence is not always about playing the game in a certain way but about being able to adapt to play in a certain way
It has been a long journey, an unforgettable journey for these young players but finally they are into the business end of this tournament. Their fate will be decided over the next seven days, starting on Monday evening at Emirates Stadium. Beat CSKA and they will fly to Lake Como for finals weekend, with the showpiece occasion taking place on April 1. But that is for another day, first up is the mighty challenge posed by Moscow.
The Russians have had a challenging route through to the quarter-finals themselves, having been handed a tough group with Ajax, Chelsea and the Norwegian side Molde. Despite the size of the challenge, four victories out of six secured their place in the last 16, where they eased past PSV Eindhoven 3-0 to set up Monday night's clash.
They will bring a fresh set of challenges for Burton’s side, but the manager is confident his maturing side are ready for whatever comes their way. “They have learnt [during the competition] that you have to be able to adapt,” he told Arsenal.com. “They have found that football intelligence is not always about playing the game in a certain way but about being able to adapt to play in a certain way.
“Most of the time we have done that well. The players have come up against some quality teams, and hopefully one of the things they have got out of it has been to learn the different ways that teams can hurt you if you don't do things right.
“Sometimes you just have to stay in games, which certainly was the case in our last match [against Inter Milan]. It was a game where the team who either made a mistake or did something a bit different would win, and fortunately we managed to do that [through Yennaris’ long-range winner].”
Burton admits to particular satisfaction at the way his side dealt with the appalling conditions in Italy, as driving rain and a waterlogged pitch caused chaos. He believes it bodes well for the future, both in the NextGen Series and beyond.
“The water on the surface was a bigger interference than the Inter Milan players, and you have to adapt when the conditions are like that,” he said. “If you don't adapt, and still try to do the things you did the week before you will make mistakes and you might get punished for it.
“It is about how you adapt, how you change your system, how you change your thought process to get from one end of the pitch to the other. The satisfying thing about games like that is when you get a result because nothing else really mattered on the day.
“You couldn't look at performances and say, 'He passed the ball well, or his movement was great' - it was about dealing with the conditions and getting a win. So to do so was very pleasing.”
Whatever happens on Monday evening, Burton has been delighted with the impact competing in NextGen has had on his players.
“It gives them the belief that they are playing against the best, and that is what you want to match yourself up against,” he said.
"You match yourself up, whether it is a right back against a left winger and you have to win your duel against them. You hope the confidence that comes from competing against the very best proves that you are moving along in the right direction.”24 Mar 2013