By Rob Kelly in Lake Como
When Kris Olsson runs out in the NextGen Series semi-final against Chelsea on Friday afternoon, he’ll know things could have been very different for him.
Aged 13, a buzz was steadily building around the talented young midfielder in Sweden and beyond, and soon enough the Blues came calling. They wanted him to move to west London and complete his footballing education there, but it just didn’t seem right at the time.
Two years later, another European heavyweight, Ajax, made their interest clear - but still the cultured Olsson decided to bide his time. Not long afterwards, Arsenal invited him on trial and this time the Swede jumped at the chance. An impressive two-week spell at London Colney and Hale End was enough to convince both club and player they were a good match and terms were swiftly agreed.
Now Olsson is a key member of a richly-talented Arsenal side that finds itself just 180 minutes away from European glory. So does he have any regrets about being a red rather than a blue? No chance.
I have improved in every way, but particularly physically and on the defensive side of things. I think I am getting better all the timeKris Olsson
“I have learnt so much since I've come here, it was definitely the right decision,” Olsson told Arsenal.com at the team hotel in Lake Como, 24 hours before the showdown with Chelsea. “I have improved in every way, but particularly physically and on the defensive side of things. I think I am getting better all the time.
“I’m really pleased with how things are going but I’m not sure when I’ll get my chance in the first team - hopefully soon. I'll have to see where I am after the summer, but hopefully in a year or so I'll be pushing to get in there.”
For now though, Olsson’s entire focus is on the NextGen Series and, in particular, beating Chelsea. The west Londoners were paired with CSKA Moscow - who the Gunners beat 1-0 in the quarter-finals on Monday - Ajax and Molde in a tricky Group Three, and finished third.
It was enough to secure them a place in the last 16, and a 2-0 win at Barcelona swiftly followed by a 4-1 quarter-final defeat of Juventus marks them out as a serious opponent.
However, Olsson feels Arsenal’s rapidly improving performances since the 4-2 dismantling of Athletic Bilbao in December underlines their own threat.
“At the beginning of the competition we changed a lot of players each game and we had a tough period, but since Bilbao [at Underhill] it has mainly been the same team,” he said. “We played really well in that match and have got even better since then.
“We couldn’t play much football at Inter Milan because of the weather and the pitch, but we have players like Nico [Yennaris] and Sead [Hajrovic] who have real heart and they helped us a lot. We showed great team spirit to win that game.
“Winning against Inter was a real highlight of the tournament for me. The weather, the way the crowd were with us, it meant so much to win there.
It would so much to win the NextGen Series - it’s the biggest club competition you can win at my age so it would be massive for us
“It was great to play against CSKA at the Emirates as well - when the crowd roared at kick-off the hairs stood up at the back of my neck! Then I got used to it, and it was an unbelievable experience. Having the crowd there really helps motivate you and makes you want to show everyone that you’re a good player and that we are a good team.
“We had a very good game from the start to the end and we should have won by more really. But we got through and that was all that mattered.
“It would so much to win the NextGen Series - it’s the biggest club competition you can win at my age so it would be massive for us. It could also help our chances of breaking into the first team, because it would show that we are the best young team in Europe and each of us are some of the best in our respective positions.
“We have some great memories of the competition so far, but hopefully we can beat Chelsea and then win the final on Monday and make some new ones. It has been a great experience for us.”
- We will have live tweets of the Chelsea game from Lake Como on Friday at 1.55pm (UK time) on the @ArsenalLive account