Our under-18s are in FA Youth Cup action on Friday night when they face Chelsea in the first leg at Stamford Bridge.
THE STORY SO FAR
It’s been an incredible journey for Kwame Ampadu’s under-18s.
Our youngsters have seen off Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool, Colchester United and Blackpool to reach the final, scoring 20 goals in six FA Youth Cup matches in the process.
A 5-0 victory in the second leg of the semi-final at the start of the month was the perfect way to build confidence ahead of the competition decider, and Ampadu is proud of how his young side have risen to the occasion.
“I’m absolutely delighted for them,” he told Arsenal.com. “We said to them at the start of the season that it was going to be about hard work, togetherness, unity and also them pushing each other every single day in training to improve as individuals and collectively. In fairness to them, they have been brilliant. The attitude and response has been fantastic.
“We’re very demanding of them and we allow them to be demanding of each other so that they push each other, too. I think they see fairness in how we treat them and we allow them to express themselves.
“A big part of becoming a successful player is being able to immerse yourself in the team and the common goal of the team, and the players have bought into that.”
THE STANDOUT PERFORMANCE
There has been plenty to be proud of during this season’s cup run.
From our second-half blitz at Colchester United to the consistently clinical performances of Tyreece John-Jules and Xavier Amaechi, our youngsters have shown a real maturity throughout this year’s competition. But for Ampadu, one performance epitomised it more than any other.
Heading out in the fourth round at the hands of Steven Gerrard’s then-unbeaten Liverpool side, we rallied together to equalise through Bukayo Saka in the 85th minute, before Tyreece John-Jules scored an extra-time winner at the Kop end.
“The spirit that they showed at Anfield, for them to come from behind in a very tough game against a very tough team was amazing,” the head coach said. “To go behind in that game and then show the spirit and the fight in that game to comeback, to turn around and beat them at Anfield, I thought that was an excellent game. They’ve also had good tests for different reasons, but that game probably stands out.
“The first leg against Blackpool was a tough match too but back at the Emirates, obviously we had a better surface and you could see the difference in quality. We were able to move the ball around a lot quicker and that suited us.”
We have the chance to lift our first FA Youth Cup title since 2009, but the toughest challenge of all is yet to come.
Champions in six of the last eight seasons, Chelsea have dominated this competition in recent years and are chasing their fifth successive title this time around.
And although Ampadu’s son, Ethan, will miss both legs with an ankle injury, the Blues still have plenty of quality all over the pitch.
“They have some fantastic players, some fantastic individuals,” Ampadu said. “There may be a couple of players who have been involved in their first team this year and then the players surrounding them are also good players. They don’t have many weaknesses, they’re always very strong and it’s going to be a very hard game.
“I wouldn’t say it takes the pressure off us because there’s always pressure. This club’s about winning things and that pressure will be on the players. The boys are looking forward to it.”
ONE TO WATCH
For all of our attacking quality, one of the biggest stories from this season’s cup run involves a youngster at the other end of the field.
Released as a schoolboy back in 2016, Danny Ballard broke his ankle while on trial with Southampton and rejoined local club Stevenage to regain his fitness.
The Northern Ireland international was poised to sign scholarship forms with Boro, but then was offered a chance to rejoin us and he’s not looked back since.
Now our FA Youth Cup captain, the young centre back has scored twice in this competition - and is a fine example to all of his team-mates.
“Danny wears the armband because he epitomises what we’re about,” Ampadu said. “Every day that he comes in, he tries to squeeze the absolute maximum out of himself in order to improve himself and make himself a better player. We’re just starting to see the fruits of that this year, and he’s done very well.
“He works so hard because the experience has been taken away from him. He knows what it’s like to have that conversation and be leaving these premises with nothing. He’s been given another bite at the cherry and he’s definitely trying to grab it with both hands.”
FOLLOW THE ACTION
We will be providing updates on our Twitter account, @Arsenal, while UK residents can also follow the first leg on ITV4.
Kick-off is at 7.45pm (UK time).
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