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Arsenal u21s 2 Rovers u21s 1

3 May 2016

Rovers' youngsters just missed out on a place in the end of season play-off final after going down 2-1 to Arsenal on Tuesday night.

Up against a vastly more experienced Arsenal side, Damien Johnson's development squad put in a tremendous display at the Emirates Stadium.

Academy keeper Andy Fisher was the star of the show in the first half, making a string of fine saves to keep the Gunners at bay, whilst Rovers threatened twice through Connor Thomson but on both occasions his efforts deflected wide.

But all of the good work in the first half was undone moments into the second when Arsenal attacker Chris Willock finally beat Fisher with a low drive into the far corner.

Rovers came into the tie in great form and they proved their credentials by getting back on level terms just past the hour mark. After Arsenal could only half clear Connor Mahoney's free-kick, Joe Rankin-Costello volleyed home from 20-yards.

Play opened up in the closing stages in what turned into an end-to-end affair, but it was the home side and Willock who grabbed the all-important goal second goal ten minutes from time to ensure it would be Arsenal through to next week's final against Aston Villa.

Damien Johnson was able to call upon Connor Mahoney for the Division 2 play-off semi-final at the Emirates Stadium.

Fresh from his two starts for the first team, the 19-year-old was the only player with any meaningful senior experience named in Rovers' 16-man squad.

In contrast, Arsenal had world stars in their ranks with Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky starting, as well as first team regulars Calum Chambers and Serge Gnabry.

And it was no surprise that the Gunners saw plenty of the ball early on, yet it was Rovers with the first effort at goal. Connor Thomson with a strong forward run on six minutes, but his effort deflected narrowly over the bar.

From the resulting Mahoney corner Joe Rankin-Costello headed goalwards, the ball appearing to strike the arm of an Arsenal defender, but Rovers were only awarded another corner kick.

Rovers' keeper Andy Fisher was called into action soon after, but efforts from Serge Gnabry and Chris Willock didn't test the young stopper.

But on 20, Fisher was at full stretch to deny Willock, Ryan Nyambe on hand to prevent the home side from profiting on the rebound.

After soaking up plenty of pressure Rovers broke forward through Thomson once more. But again his shot deflected behind for a corner.

The Gunners ended the half camped on the edge of the Rovers box, but they couldn't find a way through a resolute rearguard as Fisher kept out efforts from Stephy Mavididi and further strikes from Gnabry and Willock to ensure a goalless opening 45.

But despite doing so well to keep the vastly more experience Gunners at bay in the opening half, Damien Johnson will be disappointed that his side fell behind with the first attack of the second half.

As Rovers failed to clear their lines, Santi Cazorla played a defence-splitting pass that sent Willock in on goal and he finally beat Fisher with a low finish into the far corner.

The home side went looking for more goals as Fisher denied Mavididi at his near post, before Jack Doyle headed a Chambers header off the line.

But despite the early second half pressure, Rovers drew level on 64 minutes through the youngest player in their ranks.

As a Mahoney free-kick was only half cleared to the edge of the box, 16-year-old Joe Rankin-Costello struck the ball sweetly on the volley and it flew into the bottom corner of the net to spark jubilant scenes amongst those in blue and white.

Following the Rovers equaliser it was a much more even encounter. Further acrobatics from Fisher kept out another Chambers header at one end, before Mahoney lifted a free-kick over the bar at the other.

But with ten minutes to go the hosts went back in front with a second goal from Willock.  The Gunners’ attacker twisting and turning on the edge of the box before firing beyond Fisher into the bottom corner.

Rovers threw on Academy top scorer Lewis Mansell in the closing stages in an attempt to get back on level terms once more, but despite a tireless performance they just couldn't create that one last chance to take the game to extra-time.

Arsenal will now face Aston Villa in the final next week at the Emirates.

ARSENAL: Macey, Pleguezuelo (c), Moore, Sheaf, Bielik, Chambers, Willock, Cazorla (sub Crowley 62 mins), Mavididi, Rosicky, Gnabry.

Subs not used: Huddart (GK), Hinds, Johnson, Nketiah.

Goals: Willock 49, 80 mins.

Booked: Crowley.

ROVERS: Fisher, Nyambe, Doyle, Tomlinson, Platt, Wharton (c), Mahoney, Rankin-Costello, Forrester, Hardcastle (sub Grayson 40 mins), Thomson (sub Mansell 84 mins).

Subs not used: Travis, Crump (GK), Pemberton.

Goals: Rankin-Costello 64 mins.

Booked: None.

Attendance: 1106

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