Arsenal’s youngsters stand up to be counted when they needed them most

Much has been made of Arsenal’s reliance on their budding youngster’s this season, with their frankly abysmal campaign glossed over a little thanks to the emergence of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe in particular.

While the pair have carried their side at times this season, you only have to look at the Gunners’ league position to work out that they’ve not carried them very far.

And that’s not a criticism of them – far from it – but more of a dig at the club’s elder statesmen who haven’t pulled their weight. In fact, if it weren’t for the aforementioned duo then who knows where Arsenal would be right now.

The Gunners were left sweating over the fitness of Saka prior to their Europa League quarter-final clash with Slavia Prague on Thursday night, though the England international passed a late fitness test to be involved in the action.

The trip to Prague represented arguably one of the biggest games in Arsenal’s recent history, with a Europa League triumph representing their only realistic chance of securing European football next season.

With captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ruled out of the game after contracting malaria, the emphasis really was on the two players with a combined age of just 39 to carry one of England’s biggest clubs through the tricky away assignment.

And wow did they produce.

Bukayo Saka, David ZimaBukayo Saka, David Zima
Saka excelled in Prague | Martin Sidorjak/Getty Images

Both Smith Rowe and Saka were absolutely superb and between them they were the catalyst for everything good about Arsenal going forward.

The young duo combined to almost hand Arsenal the lead early on, with Saka crashing a stunning effort against the woodwork before Smith Rowe was first to react to tap home, only for VAR to curtail their joy as an offside decision was returned.

Not to be deterred, they continued to flood forward with purpose and Saka in particular was a constant livewire, looking menacing and adventurous every time he got on the ball.

Three goals in six first-half minutes blew away their Czech opponents and the tie was as good as over before the half-hour mark. From there it was all about game management for the visitors – something you don’t necessarily associate with youngsters making their way in the professional game – yet, again, Smith Rowe and Saka did it brilliantly.

Smith Rowe had a great game in midfieldSmith Rowe had a great game in midfield
Smith Rowe had a great game in midfield | Martin Sidorjak/Getty Images

The latter never looked like neglecting his defensive duties as he continued to track back and work for the good of the team, while Smith Rowe was superb in the centre of the pitch as he kept hold of the ball and allowed his team to move forward and alleviate any pressure the home side was building.

Saka and Smith Rowe have both enjoyed stellar campaigns this season and they’ll undoubtedly be a huge part of Mikel Arteta’s plans going forward, but this display just felt different.

It was almost like a watershed moment, as if to say ‘you thought we were good, but this is how good we actually are’.

There’s not been much to smile about around the Emirates Stadium this season, but Arsenal’s youngsters are offering plenty of reason for optimism, and Champions League football is far from out of the question with the Gunners in the last four of the Europa League.

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Twitter reacts as both Arsenal & Man Utd progress to Europa League semi-final

Just 24 hours on from the confirmation there would be two English sides in the final four of the Champions League, there’ll now also be two English sides in the semi-finals of the Europa League.

Both Manchester United and Arsenal progressed through to the next round of Europe’s secondary competition following impressive wins over Granada and Slavia Prague respectively.

Before the games had even kicked off the drama had begun as Slavia refused to take the knee – in the same week their teammate Ondrej Kudela was banned for ten matches for racially abusing Glen Kamara. You can probably tell what Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette thought of the decision…

Manchester United already had one foot in the semi-final as they kicked off at Old Trafford following their 2-0 win in Spain last week, and it took just six minutes for any Granada hope of an emphatic comeback to be extinguished.

Over in Prague, Emile Smith Rowe’s early disallowed goal for a marginal offside decision will have had Arsenal fans all over the world looking at each other with fear in their eyes, as if to say, ‘oh no, it’s not one of those nights is it’.

They shouldn’t have had any such worries, as Nicolas Pepe opened the scoring just minutes after Smith Rowe had been denied.

Right, exactly the start Arsenal needed, but the tie was still hanging in the balance and it was going to take a really rigid, disciplined display to ensure their semi-final place was in the bag.

Arsenal’s frontline had other ideas…

If the gunners were anticipating a second-half fightback from the home side as they desperately tried to claw their way back into the contest, then they were in for a big surprise.

Slavia offered very little going forward – despite needing four goals if they were to progress – and Arsenal took complete control of the game before Lacazette put the cherry on top of a professional display out on in Prague.

With United polishing off their tie after a late own goal put them 4-0 ahead on aggregate, thoughts soon turned to the semi-final ties and beyond…

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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reveals he’s been in hospital with malaria

Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has revealed he has spent time in hospital this week after contracting malaria on international duty.

The striker was absent from his side’s matchday squad for their crucial Europa League quarter-final second leg against Slavia Prague on Thursday night, having not travelled to the Czech capital.

He had also missed the Gunners’ Premier League victory over Sheffield United at the weekend through an unspecified illness, although the 31-year-old did feature in the first two games after the international break against Liverpool and in the first leg against Slavia.

Pierre-Emerick AubameyangPierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Aubameyang has not looked himself of late | Julian Finney/Getty Images

Explaining his absence in a post on Instagram alongside a photo of himself in a hospital bed, Aubameyang wrote: “Unfortunately I contracted Malaria whilst being on national team duty in Gabon a few weeks ago.”

The forward reassured his followers that although he has spent some time in hospital, he is on the mend, adding: “I’ve spent a few days in hospital this week but I’m already feeling much better every day, thanks to the great doctors that detected and treated the virus so quickly.

“I wasn’t really feeling myself the last couple weeks but will be back stronger than ever soon! Will be watching my boys now, huge game for us! Let‘s go and get it.”

It’s fair to say the Arsenal skipper hadn’t looked his usual dangerous self in his appearances since he contracted the disease while away with his country, although he did provide a crucial assist in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final.

Aubameyang will hope his teammates can do the business without him when they take on the Czech champions elect on Thursday night, with Mikel Arteta’s men needing to score after drawing the home leg 1-1.

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PSG or Man City: Who will make the Champions League final?

When a competition like the Champions League reaches the semi-final stage you’re always going to get at least one matchup that promises to be an absolute thriller.

Chelsea vs Real Madrid – yeahhh fair enough, but the return of Eden Hazard discourse is already getting a bit tedious if we’re honest.

PSG vs Manchester City – now you’re talking!

Two of the most exciting attacking teams in Europe, both with occasionally fragile defences and both willing to sell their souls if it means notching their maiden Champions League crown – this seriously couldn’t be any more mouth-watering.

The pair face off at the Parc des Princes on April 28 before the return leg at the Etihad Stadium just six days later, so as we build up to possibly the most eagerly anticipated game of the season so far, 90min takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both sides before answering the big question – who will reach the final?

PSG's frontline is one of the best in the worldPSG's frontline is one of the best in the world
PSG’s frontline is one of the best in the world | FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Picking who has the better attacking line-up out of PSG and City is so difficult.

Pep Guardiola probably has more options available to him and so has better squad depth in the attacking areas, but when comparing the two strongest starting XIs you’d have to side with Les Parisiens.

If City had a fit, world class striker then it might tip the balance in their favour, but with Gabriel Jesus struggling to lead the line and Sergio Aguero unable to find his best form following multiple injuries, the ridiculous talents of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe take the win in this category.

Winner: PSG

John Stones and Ruben Dias have been in great form this seasonJohn Stones and Ruben Dias have been in great form this season
John Stones and Ruben Dias have been in great form this season | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Again there really isn’t much to choose between the pair here.

Both can look shaky at the back and to prove how close it is they’ve conceded exactly the same amount of goals in their respective league campaigns so far this campaign.

Last season PSG would have probably just shaved this one, but the arrival of Ruben Dias has been like signing two new defenders for City as he’s brought out the best in centre-back partner John Stones.

Bayern Munich proved in their quarter-final tie with PSG that the French champions can be vulnerable at the back if you apply enough pressure, so City edge this one.

Winner: Manchester City

Mauricio Pochettino hasn't quite had things his own way at PSG so farMauricio Pochettino hasn't quite had things his own way at PSG so far
Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t quite had things his own way at PSG so far | Marcio Machado/Getty Images

This is a big one when it comes to comparing the two sides.

Their first meeting came all the way back in 2009 when Pochettino’s Espanyol side took a decent 0-0 draw from the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final with Barcelona.

While some will argue that Guardiola has pretty much always had a far better squad at his disposal than Pochettino, just three defeats for the Catalan boss in their 18 meeting is a comprehensive win.

Guardiola has ten wins against Pochettino from his time with Barça and City, and that could well play a part as the pair come face to face in the semi-final.

Winner: Manchester City

Phil Foden and his Manchester City team have excelled this seasonPhil Foden and his Manchester City team have excelled this season
Phil Foden and his Manchester City team have excelled this season | BSR Agency/Getty Images

There’s really no debate over who wins this one.

Manchester City may have suffered a bit of a blip recently against Leeds, but their form on the whole throughout this season has been incredible.

Guardiola’s men are on for an unprecedented quadruple and sit 11 points clear in the Premier League, while PSG’s usual procession to the Ligue 1 title is anything but that this season.

Pochettino’s men are in danger of not finishing top of Ligue 1 for just the second time in the last nine seasons as Lille’s title tilt goes from strength to strength. City may well have the opportunity to rest players prior to the clash with PSG knowing the Premier League title is as good as theirs – PSG won’t be afforded such luxury in Ligue 1.

Winner: Manchester City

Neymar came within 90 minutes of securing Champions League glory with PSG last seasonNeymar came within 90 minutes of securing Champions League glory with PSG last season
Neymar came within 90 minutes of securing Champions League glory with PSG last season | MATTHEW CHILDS/Getty Images

Neither of these sides have tasted Champions League success in the past, though PSG did come within 90 minutes of lifting the trophy last season.

They’ve both had their fair share of quarter-final heartbreak in the last decade, but with little to separate the two we’ve got to side with PSG on the basis they’ve triumphed at the Champions League semi-final stage in the past and Man City’s only appearance in the last four saw them dumped out by Real Madrid in 2016.

Winner: PSG

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You only have to look at the goals for and against in their respective league campaigns to realise just how evenly matched these two sides are, and while some will moan Ligue 1 isn’t at the same level as the Premier League, PSG did a pretty good job of getting rid of the reigning European champions in the last round.

But given Manchester City’s form this season and Guardiola’s success over Pochettino in the past, we’re backing the City backline to just about do enough to stifle PSG’s lethal forwards and advance to the showpiece event in May.

Regardless of whether you agree or not, the game should be absolutely brilliant and we can’t wait to watch it.

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Emre Can: What’s going on, buddy?

Strengths: Gets fouled often
Weaknesses: Commits fouls often

A quick glance at the ‘style of play’ section of Emre Can’s WhoScored page tells you all you need to know about how he has fared since leaving Liverpool.

Best known at Anfield for his utterly preposterous overhead kick against Watford, 18 months at Juventus seem to have sapped the magic out of a player who was compared to Steven Gerrard at the peak of his powers.

The version of Emre Can who took to the pitch for Dortmund against Manchester City for Wednesday evening’s Champions League defeat wasn’t a bad player, but he was ineffectual. Through little fault of his own, the last few years have seen Can stumble from one manager to another, never able to deliver the sort of vibrant and energetic performances that saw him quickly win over the Liverpool faithful.

Back in the early part of his Anfield career, he was deployed as a defender by Brendan Rodgers, before Jurgen Klopp came in and singled him out for his technical ability.

Klopp’s first full season at Liverpool saw Can deliver the best football of his career so far, starring at the heart of a team who finished fourth and ended a long wait for Champions League football.

He arguably clinched it for them with one of the best goals the Premier League has ever seen, throwing himself at Lucas Leiva’s chipped pass and connecting with a technically outrageous overhead kicked.

Back then, he had that in his locker. He was physically imposing, but he was also a phenomenally gifted played capable of winning games by himself.

It looked as if he had it all, but he was soon distracted by a transfer saga that saw him walk away from Liverpool for free, just as the Reds began to establish themselves as one of the best teams in the world.

He made his final appearance for the club with a forgettable cameo in the Champions League final, as Real Madrid led 3-1 and cruised towards the trophy. Can’s future was already sealed; he’d signed a deal with Juventus, and flew out to Italy to join up with his new teammates.

That really couldn’t have gone much worse for him. While Max Allegri was patient as Can struggled to adjust to Serie A, Maurizio Sarri was not.

The incoming manager made it patently clear he had no space in his team for the Frankfurt-born midfielder. He was left out of the squad for their Champions League campaign, and started just twice under Sarri before he returned to the Bundesliga with Dortmund in January 2020.

And while he’s featured regularly since landing back in his paternal homeland, it’s a stretch to say things have gone smoothly.

Splitting his time between centre-back, right-back and a loosely-defined holding midfield role, he has been unable to carve out a clear role for himself under either Lucien Favre or Edin Terzic. When Marco Rose arrives in the summer, Can will have to start from scratch again, and prove himself to a fifth manager in just over three years.

There’s no denying Can’s ability, but his career has been waylaid by a lack of continuity. You could see that in his shakey, unsure performance against City, when Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne made his life a misery. He conceded the penalty that eventually sent City through, and looked like a player lacking any sort of confidence.

After three turbulent years, Can just needs to find some rhythm.

Whether that’s under Rose at Dortmund or elsewhere remains to be seen, but now 27, his undeniable talent is at real risk of going to waste if he doesn’t find it soon.

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