By Rob Kelly at Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia, Lake Como
Arsenal’s European dream is over after they were beaten 4-3 by Chelsea in the semi-finals of the NextGen Series on Friday afternoon.
Chuba Akpom gave Terry Burton’s side the lead during a dominant first-half display, but the west Londoners drew level soon after the interval through Islam Feruz.
An uncharacteristic error by Deyan Iliev allowed Nathan Baker to give Chelsea the lead, and Arsenal fell further behind when Jeremie Boga added a third.
The Gunners looked to be heading out, but this team are made of stern stuff. An 87th-minute own goal by Chelsea right back Andreas Christensen gave them a sniff of a comeback, and in injury time Gnabry curled in a dramatic late equaliser.
Tired legs meant extra-time chances were at a premium, and Baker’s 116th-minute winner broke Arsenal hearts and sent them out.
Despite this disappointment, the Club’s rising stars have every reason to feel proud of their performances in the competition. This may not be their year, but they have produced some outstanding displays and underlined their rich potential again and again.
Having beaten CSKA Moscow so comfortably in the quarter-finals, Burton named an unchanged side for this game in the picturesque Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia. In a tranquil, picture-postcard setting adjacent to Lake Como, this is not your ordinary stadium. The pitch may not be the best, but with mist rolling down the hills and seaplanes cruising over the pitch, this was certainly a new experience for the Club’s rising stars.
Chelsea had claimed some big scalps en route to the semi-finals, accounting for Barcelona and Juventus in the knockout stages, and included former Gunner Chris Kiwomya’s nephew, Alex, in their side.
Arsenal started the game impressively, controlling the opening exchanges, and their high-energy pressing game caused the Blues all sorts of problems.
Indeed, in the seventh minute Akpom’s chasing down of Chelsea keeper Mitchell Beeney caused him to inexplicably clear the ball directly to the feet of the lurking Gnabry 10 yards out. The German forward scarcely seemed to believe his luck, but with the goal gaping his rushed shot was blocked by the onrushing Beeney.
One of Chelsea’s brightest hopes for the future, Boga, soon showed his quality with a fizzing shot that flew just past Iliev’s left-hand post, but still the Gunners remained in charge. Their willingness to work for each other and their total commitment to each tackle deserved reward, and in the 16th minute it arrived.
Gnabry, a constant thorn in the side of Chelsea, floated out to the right flank and collected the ball before drawing the defender, and setting the overlapping Bellerin free with a fine pass. The Spaniard has been a major attacking outlet from the back throughout this competition, and he kept his composure and took a touch before sending a delightful ball across the six-yard for Akpom to convert.
Chelsea upped the tempo as they sought an immediate response, but Isaac Hayden and Sead Hajrovic have formed a classy partnership at the back and they held firm. In fact, the closest the Blues got to restoring parity was when Baker curled a superb free kick inches wide from 25 yards.
However, the Blues made the stronger start to the second period and finally they were granted a way back into the match in the 52nd minute when Gnabry was adjudged to have felled Ruben Loftus Cheek in the area. Baker’s penalty was brilliantly saved by Iliev but Feruz fired in the rebound.
It was rough luck on the Gunners, but their response was good as Kyle Ebecilio and Kris Olsson both went close.
However, just after the hour mark Baker’s speculative 30-yard effort somehow squirmed under Iliev to give Chelsea the lead. It was harsh on Arsenal who had been the better side, and worse was to follow three minutes later when Boga scored after a mazy run by Kiwomya.
Things may have looked grim for the Gunners, but an own goal by Chelsea right back Christensen in the 87th minute set up a grandstand finish. With seconds left Bellerin found Gnabry, who curled in a sensational late leveller to send the game to extra time.
The drama kept on coming and within seconds of the restart, Kiwomya was sent clean through on goal but dragged his shot wide of the far post. It was a real let-off for the Gunners, and with tired legs having an effect there were few chances to speak of before Baker won it in the 116th minute.
It was a disappointing end to a thrilling run to the semi-finals, but there remains much to be positive about. The Club’s future looks bright.
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