It has been a whirlwind year for Deyan Iliev. In the space of 12 months, the promising young goalkeeper has gone from an understudy at Macedonian side FK Belasica to playing in a European semi-final for Arsenal. He’s barely had time to catch his breath.
Having had a spell at Inter Milan aged 15 cut short due to visa issues, Iliev thought his shot at the big time might be gone. But after being spotted at the start of 2012 by goalkeeper coach Tony Roberts and invited to a trial at the Club, he impressed sufficiently to be offered a contract. It was a dream come true.
Since then, he has caught the eye with a string of assured performances as Arsenal reached the last four of the NextGen Series. There is already a buzz within the Club about Iliev, and hopes are high that another gem may just have been unearthed.
Arsenal is a big family, so it has been easy to settle in and I’m really proud to be part of the club
“I had two trials, and when I eventually signed my deal it felt incredible,” he told Arsenal.com. “I was so happy. I couldn't believe it because it is such a big club.
“I was at Inter three years ago, and while they are a big club, they are not as big as Arsenal. I couldn’t sign, but it worked out better for me in the end because I joined Arsenal.
“The first year for everyone is hard but I have really enjoyed it. I came here last summer and didn’t speak much English, but it is getting better now I think! Arsenal is a big family, so it has been easy to settle in and I’m really proud to be part of the club.”
The NextGen Series proved to be an invaluable experience for Iliev, who holds dual Macedonian-Bulgarian nationality. Having only made one appearance in the group stage, the 18-year-old had nailed down his place in the side by the time the last-16 clash at Inter Milan came around.
In torrid conditions, Iliev was a composed presence in goal against his former club and went on to feature against CSKA Moscow, Chelsea and Sporting Lisbon as the Gunners finished fourth in the competition. Despite his disappointment at missing out on the trophy, the teenage goalkeeper enjoyed the tournament.
“I have learnt a lot over the past year, because I have played in some big games in the NextGen Series,” he said.
I have learnt a lot about technique, about decision-making. It has been a busy year but I have really enjoyed it
“It is a major competition against the best teams in Europe so to reach the semi final was really good. We beat Inter Milan on the way, who were the holders, and it was a good experience overall.
“I have learnt a lot about technique, about decision-making. It has been a busy year but I have really enjoyed it.”
Iliev’s next task will be to help the under-21s to victory at Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday night. Steve Gatting’s side face an uphill task to progress from the elite group stage following successive defeats to Southampton and Liverpool, but their hosts lie one place below them in the table.
The exciting Gedion Zelalem could get another run-out following his debut at Anfield last week, while Danny Boateng could come back into contention in defence.
- We will have live tweets from Monday night’s match on the @ArsenalLive account from 6.55pm (UK time)