By Rob Kelly in Milan
When Zak Ansah was working his way back to full fitness last summer, Champions League trips to Greece and NextGen Series visits to Italy must have seemed a million miles away. But fast forward eight months and the promising young forward has experienced both.
It has been an encouraging return for the 18-year-old after he sustained a serious knee injury with the reserves at Liverpool nearly a year ago to the day. Back then he was fighting for his future, right now he has a chance to shape it by firing Arsenal to victory against Inter Milan this afternoon.
The task doesn’t come much bigger, though. Terry Burton’s side face the NextGen Series holders on their own patch, and are yet to taste victory on the road in the competition this season. But having so thrillingly beaten Athletic Bilbao 4-2 in their final match in Group Six to set up this Italian job, Arsenal's confidence is high.
Certainly Ansah - who scored against Bilbao in his first tournament appearance - has enough reasons for optimism after coming through the most testing period of his young career.
“My injury was quite frustrating and I was in with the Club most of the summer trying to get fit again,” he told Arsenal.com.
“I did my anterior cruciate ligament, and was out for seven months overall. The staff at the Club were really helpful, while a few other boys have had the same injury, like Conor Henderson and Emmanuel Frimpong, who has had it twice.
"Foreign teams are good technically, you have to be more patient and tactically aware against them. If you want to progress at this club, you are likely to be playing in the Champions League or Europa League, so it is good to test yourself in these sort of games"
“They gave me advice on what exercises to do and sometimes when it was aching they would tell me about their experiences of it, reassuring me and telling me to ice it. It was good advice and helped me a lot."
Within a few short months of his return, Ansah was included in the first-team squad for December’s Champions League clash at Olympiacos. The teenager describes it as “an experience I will never forget” and it has whetted his appetite for the NextGen Series last-16 clash in Milan.
“The competition is different and it is a great experience,” he said. “Foreign teams are good technically, you have to be more patient and tactically aware against them. If you want to progress at this club, you are likely to be playing in the Champions League or Europa League, so it is good to test yourself in these sort of games.
“All the boys are buzzing for the Inter game. It is very exciting to travel around Europe playing in these big matches - it is something I’ve always wanted to do.
“I look up to the senior players, and at this club we are always in the Champions League so it is nice to follow in their footsteps in some way. It is a good way to prepare yourself for the first team.
“It is a real learning curve, too, because you never know - you could do well in training and the boss could say he wants you in the squad for a Champions League game.”
Whatever happens during this afternoon’s match, Ansah is confident Arsenal have the quality in the squad to secure a positive result.
“We have good character in this team, even if we go behind we don't give up,” he said. “In the knockout stages, you have to win so even if we go a goal down we know that we are capable of coming back.
“We have shown that this season, like against West Brom on Sunday [when the under-21s came back from two goals down to draw 2-2]. You have to be able to show you can dig in.”
That is certainly something Ansah has proved he can do. Now he is looking to the future with real optimism - and that starts against Inter Milan this afternoon.
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