For anyone other than Arsenal’s supporters, the second half of the Gunners’ Champions League Group D finale at Galatasaray on Tuesday carried little appeal. Arsenal had already clinched a berth in the knockout stage and pumped in three goals during the first half in Istanbul.
There was, however, a touch of drama in the making: Would Arsene Wenger summon Gedion Zelalem, the 17-year-old midfielder with Ethiopian roots, a German birthplace and U.S. upbringing?
Zelalem typically plays for Arsenal’s under-19 squad, but without the usual Champions League urgency against last-place Galatasaray, Wenger carried six teenagers on his bench.
At the start of the second half, Zelalem trotted onto the field for his first competitive first-team match since an FA Cup affair against Coventry City last January.
Zelalem looked comfortable in the center of the park, confident and integrated during a largely uneventful second half. Arsenal won the match, 4-1, and finished level with Borussia Dortmund with a 4-1-1 record but second on goal differential. The round-of-16 draw is Dec. 15. Play will begin in mid-February.
With Arsenal sixth in the Premier League, 13 points in back of first-place Chelsea and five off the pace for an automatic berth in the 2015-16 Champions League, Zelalem and some of his youthful teammates might receive more first-team assignments over the next six months.
As for Zelalem and his potential U.S. national team future, he has not yet publicly committed to the American program. In fact, he and his family have yet to confirm he is even eligible. However, he was on a pathway to a passport, and according to those close to him, he prefers to play for the United States rather than Germany, which he has represented on the youth level.
Zelalem lived in the Washington area for many years, attended public schools in Montgomery County, Md., played one season for Walter Johnson High School and honed his game with the Bethesda-Olney Soccer Club.
Said one source: “It’s going well” with the citizenship process and there could be “some news in short time.”