By Max Jones at the LA Arena
Our under-19s’s Youth League campaign is over for another year after they were knocked out in the group stage following a 1-1 draw against Basel.
Eddie Nketiah’s late strike provided a glimmer of hope after a hard-fought first 80 minutes against the Swiss champions, but Martin Leichti’s late equaliser means we exit the competition before the knockout stage.
After a nervy start to the game, we soon asserted our dominance. Kristopher da Graca, Nketiah and Josh Dasilva had our chances but they were each denied by a combination of goalkeeper Dario Thurkauf and his resolute defence.
We saw plenty of the ball in the second half too and, when Nketiah poked home from close range with just 10 minutes remaining, it looked like our hopes of qualification were still alive, but they were quickly taken away again when Martin Leichti found the top corner from 20 yards.
SETTING THE SCENE
Having lost 2-1 in September’s home tie, Jonker’s team went into this game knowing that any combination of scoring two goals and a win would see them qualify for the next round of the Youth League on the head-to-head rule - but it would not be an easy task against one of Europe’s most renowned academies.
The Swiss champions have produced experienced internationals such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Gokhan Inler and of course Granit Xhaka, but perhaps their must famous export is Champions League winner Ivan Rakitic, who grew up just 20 kilometres away from where this Group A decider was taking place.
Hoping to follow in the Croatia international’s footsteps were Basel’s next batch of youngsters, including first-team regular Eray Cumart and 18-year-old full back Blas Riveros, who has already been capped by Paraguay.
But Jonker had his own set of bright young talents to call upon too and, after his recent hat-trick for the under-23s against Leicester City, it came as no surprise to see Nketiah spearhead our attack, flanked by the exciting pair of Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Reiss Nelson.
All Basel needed to do was avoid defeat but, from the way they started the match, you would have been forgiven for thinking that they were the side in need of a goal. The Swiss side’s slick passing had us on the back foot from the offset, but fortunately our defence stood firm to deal with the early onslaught.
For all the hosts’ bright attacking play, though, they almost came undone from our first corner of the game. Krystian Bielik rose highest to nod the ball down to Da Graca, whose hooked shot was cleared off the line, and then Nketiah stung Thurkauf’s palms with a rasping drive.
In keeping with the end-to-end flow of the first half, it was Basel who threatened next when Atdhe Rashiti rolled Bielik on the edge of the box and blasted over before doing the same to Da Graca moments later. While his first effort was close, his second was much closer.
Marc Bola was forced to leave the pitch on a stretcher midway through the first 45 minutes, but that did little to disrupt our momentum. Dasilva, now covering at left back, sent a fierce free-kick just wide of the top corner and was unlucky to see his dangerous cross well kept out by Thurkauf at the far post as the half came to a close.
Just like in the first half, Basel started the brighter side, and we were almost made to pay from kick-off. Luca Tausch collected the ball 18 yards out and struck a deflected shot wide, before Yves Kaiser headed the resulting corner inches past the near post.
Tausch had another big chance moments later when Da Graca’s slip allowed the Basel forward to race through on goal, but Hugo Keto was quick to read the danger and clear from inside the six-yard box.
Cumart, too, had posed a threat from set-pieces throughout the match and he perhaps should have broken the deadlock on the hour mark when he ran into the box unmarked and powered Dominik Robin Schmid’s corner off target from eight yards.
Nketiah did not make the same mistake. Substitute Donyell Malen steered a late corner into the striker’s path and he poked home from close range to spark a dramatic final few minutes. Basel were still pressing, though, and Leichti equalised in the second minute of stoppage time to put our Youth League hopes to bed.
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