By Rob Kelly in Milan
In dreadful conditions, on an almost unplayable pitch, against the NextGen Series holders, Arsenal’s rising stars came of age on Wednesday afternoon.
In a display full of heart, character and grit, they came to Inter Milan and won in dramatic circumstances thanks to Nico Yennaris' second-half strike.
They will have their eyes firmly on the trophy now.
Upon arriving at the ground, it immediately became clear that this would be far from the glamour tie it had at first appeared. The near constant rain in Milan had left the pitch covered in large puddles, while each goalmouth resembled a quagmire. An inspection half an hour before kick off ruled the game would go ahead, but this would be no ordinary game.
From the off it became clear that passing football was not an option. The ball clung to the turf, the rain was pouring down and the pitch was cutting up with every second that passed. But Terry Burton’s side simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with their Italian job.
The first half had seen them on the back foot for long periods, but they grew into the game after the interval and deservedly scored the only goal of the game when Yennaris fired one into the bottom corner from 20 yards in the 68th minute. From that point on the Italians laid siege to the Arsenal goal, but the visitors would not be moved.
After 90 breathless, immensely challenging minutes the final whistle blew to spark an outpouring of emotion as the entire Arsenal bench raced on to the pitch to celebrate as a squad. They had knocked out the holders - now CSKA Moscow await in the quarter-finals.
The perils of the pitch had soon became apparent when, in the sixth minute, Martin Angha played a regulation backpass from 20 yards out on the right touchline towards Dejan Iliev. However, the ball suddenly got caught in the sodden turf seven yards away from the Arsenal goalkeeper, and with Colombi advancing threateningly, he had to react smartly to clear it to safety.
"Yennaris raced in to intercept the ball by the halfway line and he tore towards the Inter box. With the defenders backing away, the captain let fly from 20 yards and buried his shot into the bottom corner"
Inter remained on the front foot for much of the first half, and came closest to scoring on the quarter-hour mark when Elton Monteiro headed Bandini’s free kick out to the edge of the box. Tassi raced on to the loose ball and took a touch before crashing a powerful volley just over the bar from 25 yards. It was a moment of magic in an otherwise difficult opening 45 minutes for both sides.
With conditions so poor, neither team were able to play the passing football on which they have been brought up. If a goal was to come, it was likely to stem from a moment of magic or a mistake at the back - and in the 19th minute Inter so nearly obliged.
Kris Olsson collected the ball midway inside the Inter half and attempted to find Chuba Akpom with a lofted pass. However, as the ball dropped to the young striker, the home centre back Donkor intervened and tried to cushion a header back to his goalkeeper. It evaded its outstretched target but drifted agonosingly wide of the far post.
The rest of the half followed a similar pattern: Inter would press and probe, Arsenal would break on the counter before the move would collapse due to the sodden state of the pitch. It was tight and tense, with tempers fraying as the half wore on, but as the half-time whistle blew it remained deadlocked.
The Gunners were far more assertive after the break, pushing Inter back for long periods and placing them under real pressure - albeit without managing to pry open the hosts’ defence. The pitch was so cut up by the hour mark that a passing game was nigh on impossible, with both sides forced to hit it long.
Amid the gloom, suddenly a flash of real quality gave Arsenal the lead they had worked so hard for. Yennaris raced in to intercept the ball by the halfway line and he tore towards the Inter box. With the defenders backing away, the captain let fly from 20 yards and buried his shot into the bottom corner. The celebrations on the touchline showed how much it meant to this young side, but there was still plenty yet to do.
There was a heartstopping moment with 10 minutes remaining when Belloni sent in a delightful cross from the right flnak. Monteiro - a calm presence at the back all afternoon - rose to clear but it skimmed off his head and skidded past the near post.
Two minutes later Tassi came close once more as he raced into the box to meet another Belloni cross but directed his header inches off target. The NextGen holders were growing increasingly frantic, but the visitors held firm and kept their nerve and discipline.
After a tense finale the whistle blew. Arsenal’s Italian job was complete.
Referee: Mr Davide Oggioni (Monza)
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