By Rob Kelly at Underhill
Arsenal cruised into the knockout stages of the NextGen Series with a thrilling 4-2 victory over Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night.
Terry Burton’s side had failed to score in their four previous matches in the competition, but knew that a victory against the Basque side would see them progress.
As it was, the goals flowed on a highly-entertaining evening at Underhill.
The hosts looked in composed mood in the opening exchanges, and made the perfect start when Sead Hajrovic headed home in the ninth minute.
But Bilbao’s youth system has produced such gems as Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain, and the current crop showed they have talent in abundance too. They hit back when Ager Aqueche slotted home from the penalty spot.
But the Gunners took over in the second half as Zak Ansah, Toral and the impressive Isaac Hayden all scored in quick succession. Bilbao hit back late on through Yerai Alvarez, but it was not enough to derail the efferverscent hosts.
Burton’s players had talked before kick-off of not wanting their European adventure to end, and they can now look forward to testing themselves against the cream of the continent in the New Year.
Burton made two changes to the side that drew 0-0 at San Mames three weeks ago - Samir Bihmoutine replacing Elton Monteiro and Zak Ansah getting his first taste of the NextGen Series in place of Serge Gnabry.
Bilbao, meanwhile, made a raft of changes for their visit to Underhill with only six of the side that started in Spain lining up against the Gunners this time around. The Basque side were without captain Guillermo Fernandez, who was suspended after his red card for elbowing Sead Hajrovic at San Mames.
Arsenal started brightly in the bitter cold, and came close to snatching the lead in the eighth minute as patient build-up play saw the ball fall to Kris Olsson on the edge of the area. The Swedish midfielder took his time but blasted his shot inches over the bar.
But the Gunners did not have long to wait to break the deadlock, as within 60 seconds Hajrovic headed the ball in from close range. It was the perfect start for Burton’s side, who needed to win, but they found themselves pegged back almost immediately.
In the 12th minute, the impressive Hayden raced to the right of the box to close down Gorka Santamaria and seemed to win the ball in the tackle. However, the referee disagreed and pointed to the spot, and Aqueche made no mistake.
Arsenal did not let the goal affect them and continued to play with real confidence. Minutes later Ansah volleyed narrowly over the bar after good work from Martin Angha and Thomas Eisfeld.
Still the chances kept on coming as the hosts laid siege to the Bilbao goal, with Hayden a focal point at the base of the midfield. The England Under-19 international showed real tenacity all evening, and one driving run created a good chance for Ansah but his curling shot was well held by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The Basque side, however, were playing with no little confidence themselves and Reice Charles-Cook had to be alert to palm over Aqueche’s free kick from the edge of the area on the half-hour mark.
It had been a breathless first half, and the pace showed no sign of abating after the restart. Within minutes, Santamaria saw a shot saved by Charles-Cook and Eisfeld slid a shot wide from 10 yards out at the other end.
Chuba Akpom, fresh from his trip to Olympiacos with the first team on Tuesday, was in lively mood and made a superb run from the halfway line in the 53rd minute that saw him beat three players and pass to Eisfeld. The German was fouled on the edge of the area, but Olsson’s free kick was saved by the sprawling Arrizabalaga.
It was end-to-end stuff, and moments later it was Bilbao’s turn from a free kick as Aqueche fired a superb curling effort inches wide from 20 yards. Then Arsenal came forward, with Hayden’s cross inches away from the outstretched foot of Akpom.
It was a fascinating battle, and in the 69th minute Bilbao had a golden chance to snatch the lead as Aqueche fed Santamaria in the area. The dangerous forward took a touch to take the ball away from Angha, and struck a powerful shot that Charles-Cook did superbly to save.
It was the turning point. Arsenal raced down the other end and Toral played a lovely ball through to Hayden, who had ghosted into the box. The midfielder shaped to shoot, but unselfishly cut the ball back for Ansah to slide home from close range.
Arsenal’s tails were up and they wrapped things up moments later as Olsson fed Angha in the area. The Swiss defender’s cross-cum-shot flew across the area and Toral bent low to head in a crucial third, sparking wild celebrations.
There was still more to come though, and in the 81st minute Hayden got the goal his all-action performance merited as he poked in from close range for the now rampant Gunners.
Bilbao clawed one goal back near the end through Alvarez, but it was not enough to take the shine off a superb evening’s work for Burton and his talented young side.
- Hajrovic Goal!
- Bihmoutine 78
- Toral 80 Goal!
- Hayden Goal!
- Ansah Goal!
- Ormonde-Ottewill 78
- Mugabo 80
Athletic Bilbao U19
- Alvarez Goal!
- Aqueche Goal!