By Rob Kelly in Naples
SUMMARYArsenal Under-19s reached the knockout stages of the Uefa Youth League despite a narrow 2-1 defeat to Napoli on Wednesday afternoon.
Steve Gatting’s side topped Group F, meaning they have a home fixture to look forward to when the draw for the last 16 is made on Monday.
Gerardo Rubino gave Napoli the lead in the 34th minute when he nodded home a corner from close range, prompting a strong response from the Gunners.
There was no breakthrough before the interval, but the second half saw Arsenal start to dominate proceedings.
Finally the equaliser came in the 62nd minute as Chuba Akpom converted Jon Toral’s cross before going close again moments later.
But Napoli re-established the lead with 19 minutes remaining when Gennaro Tutino fired the ball past Deyan Iliev from inside the area.
That proved enough for the hosts to claim the victory they needed, but Marseille’s 3-0 win against Dortmund meant Arsenal finished at the summit of Group F.
SETTING THE SCENE
Gatting knew a win or a draw in southern Italy would be enough to take his side through to the knockout stages, regardless of Dortmund’s result at Marseille. As such he named a strong team, with just two changes from their last game in the competition.
With Julio Pleguezuelo missing, German teenager Leander Siemann slotted in at centre back alongside Stefan O’Connor, while Glen Kamara replaced the suspended Isaac Hayden at the base of the midfield.
On an uneven surface that made passing football difficult, Arsenal were almost caught out as early as the fourth minute when the dangerous Frank Liivak collected the ball just outside the area.
The Napoli forward dropped his shoulder superbly and slalomed his way past two defenders, but drilled a firm shot just over the bar.
Gatting’s side started to grow in confidence and created two decent openings, for Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill and Toral, but both times the final ball let them down.
There was a further scare for the visitors midway through the first half when Tutino latched on to a through ball in the area and placed it beyond Iliev, but the offside flag saved them.
Ten minutes later, though, there was no let off as Rubino rose highest in the six-yard box to meet Liivak’s corner and place his header beyond Iliev.
The Gunners responded quickly and just before half-time they carved out their best opportunity when the Kamara rampaged forward from the back. After holding off two challenges, he found Akpom on the left flank and the striker cut infield before dragging his shot just wide of the near post.
Arsenal continued to build momentum after the interval, pinning the hosts back and trying to prise open the defence to fashion a clear sight on goal.
The slick passing of Kris Olsson, Gedion Zelalem and Toral started to cause real problems and just before the hour mark, the former sent Stefan O’Connor clean through with a delightful backheel. The centre back took a touch, but blasted the ball wide from 10 yards out.
Three minutes later the breakthrough finally came as Toral collected a short corner from Olsson, and whipped a low ball across the six-yard box for Akpom to convert.
Moments later the England Under-19 international had a chance for a second after more good work from Toral, but he pushed a header wide from close range.
Despite their domination, Gatting’s side fell behind again in the 71st minute as Tutino collected the ball to the right of the box and fired a firm drive past Iliev.
Toral tested the Napoli keeper late on with a curling effort, but Arsenal could not find the equaliser they deserved.
But it mattered little for their hopes of progression, and their Uefa Youth League dream remains very much alive.
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