The Arsenal u21s’ EFL Trophy hopes were left in the balance after they could only manage a draw against Plymouth Argyle on Tuesday.
Arsenal went into their final EFL Trophy group game against Plymouth Argyle knowing that a two-goal win would be enough to effectively guarantee progression to the next stage, but any other result would leave their hopes in Swindon Town’s hands.
Likely with that in mind, Kevin Betsy named a stronger side than in the previous two games, with the likes of Folarin Balogun, Mika Biereth, and Arthur Okonkwo coming into the team.
On the other hand, Charlie Patino, Mazeed Ogungbo, Zane Monlouis, Salah-Eddine Oulad M’hand, and Omari Hutchinson were all absent, seemingly all picking up injury problems in recent weeks.
So despite Betsy going strong, it was a bit of a makeshift team, with two full-backs in the back three and Kido Taylor-Hart and James Olayinka taking up Salah-Eddine and Patino’s positions in midfield.
After a couple of very early chances for Argyle, Arsenal went close as Biereth hit the crossbar. The Argyle goalkeeper then had to keep out an effort from Ryan Alebiosu, before Taylor-Hart and Olayinka both shot wide.
Argyle started to come back into the game after that, and they took the lead in the 24th minute as Kieran Agard finished a Jordon Garrick cross first-time.
Arsenal thought they’d drawn level on the half-hour mark, with Balogun setting up Biereth to score, but it was ruled out for an offside in the build-up.
Balogun had another shot blocked before the break after being played in by Biereth, and Argyle went in at half-time 1-0 up.
Balogun put the pressure on again at the start of the second half, forcing another save, before he finally got his goal in the 56th minute.
Played through by Zak Swanson, Balogun rounded the goalkeeper and turned the ball home for 1-1.
The striker could have had a second five minutes later, but this time his one-on-one effort was saved.
To add to Arsenal’s injury woes at the back, centre-back Omar Rekik went down under a heavy challenge, and he had to come off for another full-back, Reuell Walters.
Arthur Okonkwo was called into action to make a great save with 11 minutes to go, keeping the shot out despite a deflection, before Balogun saw another shot saved by fingertips in the final minutes of injury time.
But there was to be no repeat of Arsenal’s late winner in the last group game, and the match went to penalties.
In the EFL Trophy, both teams get a point for a draw, and a penalty shootout determines which team gets a bonus point.
Two teams progress from each group, and Arsenal were on four points at the end of the 90 minutes, just one ahead of third-placed Newport County with inferior goal difference. So they really could have done with the bonus point.
Folarin Balogun, Mika Biereth, and Zak Swanson each stepped up to convert their penalties, but Plymouth Argyle slotted away their first three as well. Arsenal were the first to misstep, with Brooke Norton-Cuffy’s effort saved by the goalkeeper.
Argyle scored their fourth, Kido Taylor-Hart responded by scoring his, giving the hosts a chance to win it with their fifth penalty. But Arthur Okonkwo saved Will Jenkins-Davies’ effort to keep the shootout going.
Unfortunately, James Olayinka immediately saw his effort saved, and Argyle took their opportunity to win the shootout at the second time of asking.
Arsenal’s hopes of progression to the knockout stages are now entirely out of their hands. Even a draw and a defeat on penalties for Newport County would be enough to send them through in Arsenal’s place.
The only way Arsenal can progress is if Swindon Town beat Newport, in the match scheduled for next Tuesday (9th November, 19:00 GMT). Swindon sit three places above Newport in the League Two table, so it should be a close match.
Balogun’s strong form continues to be the main positive from Arsenal’s recent performances, particularly when other in-form players like Patino and Salah-Eddine are out injured.
Arsenal u21 lineup vs Plymouth Argyle
Okonkwo, Norton-Cuffy, Swanson, Rekik, Alebiosu, Olayinka, Akinola, Taylor-Hart, Lopez, Biereth, Balogun
Butler-Oyedeji, Edwards, Ejeheri, Foran (for Alebiosu, 51), Henry-Francis, Ideho (for Lopez, 88), Walters (for Rekik, 74)
In their final game before the international break, Arsenal return to the Premier League 2, where they’re looking to defend their position at the top of the table against Leicester City u23s at London Colney.
The match was initially scheduled to take place at the Emirates Stadium on Friday, but due to the rescheduling of the Plymouth match, it was moved behind closed doors on Saturday at 13:00 GMT instead.