By Rob Kelly at the Georgios Karaiskákis Stadium
Arsenal’s rising stars suffered three cruel late blows as they fell to a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos in Athens on Wednesday night.
Having started their NextGen Series campaign in such fine form last month with a 3-0 victory against Marseille, hopes were high for their first away match in the competition.
But to win on foreign soil is a very different challenge and it proved to be beyond Terry Burton’s rising stars following two late goals and a contentious sending off.
The first blow came as Rafail Soukias fired in the opening goal in the 84th minute following a brilliant reaction save by Reice Charles-Cook.
As the Gunners went in search of an equaliser the game opened up and suddenly Nikos Ioannidis was sent through. Hector Bellerin upended the forward, but with other defenders close at hand the resulting red card seemed harsh.
Then, to make matters worse, Leandro Climaco Pinto curled home the free kick to cap off a disappointing end to Arsenal’s Athens adventure.
With Jon Toral nursing an injury and Kristoffer Olsson away on international duty, Burton was forced to make changes to the side that beat Marseille so convincingly in the opening game.
Isaac Hayden and Anthony Jeffrey were given the nod to replace the absent duo in midfield at the Georgios Karaiskákis Stadium, while Charles-Cook returned from injury to take the place of emergency loanee Stuart Moore in goal.
The opening exchanges of the match saw both sides pressing and probing, but to little effect as the two defences stood tall. The Gunners had started so brightly against Marseille, but here they were forced to be more patient and wait for opportunities to arise.
Chances were at a premium throughout a keenly-contested first half, but the best fell to the visitors. The first was all of Serge Gnabry’s making as the German winger showed delightful feet to beat two men before racing in on goal and dragging a left-footed shot just wide in the 23rd minute.
That effort seemed to galvanise the Gunners, and five minutes later they again came close to breaking the deadlock. The lively Anthony Jeffrey found some space to attack down the right flank before cutting the ball back to the onrushing Kyle Ebecilio. The Dutch youth international hit his shot firmly towards the top corner but Olympiacos defender Leandro Climaco Pinto managed to deflect it inches over the bar.
But the hosts, who lost 4-0 to Athletic Bilbao in the opening round of Group Six fixtures, were certainly no pushovers and Reice Charles-Cook soon had to react smartly to palm away Dimitris Rikspun’s snapshot. Then Elton Monteiro was on hand to block Nikos Ioannidis’ near-post shot before the striker headed the resulting corner wide.
It was a finely-balanced affair, with neither side able to claim any sort of dominance at the interval.
The match followed a similar pattern after the restart, although Nico Yennaris forced a good stop from Eleftherios Choutesiotis in the 54th minute with a firm after a scramble in the area.
Olympiacos seemed to be growing in confidence and Vasileios Karagounis caused real problems down the right before sliding in a good cross that Monteiro cut out once more. Back came Arsenal and moments later they had a strong shout for a penalty after Ebecilio seemed to be taken down in the area - but it was waved away by the referee.
Things were evened up soon afterwards when the rampaging Karagounis burst down the right and into the area, only to crash into Sead Hajrovic. The home fans were on their feet in anticipation of a penalty, but once again none was forthcoming.
The game opened up as it entered the closing stages and Charles-Cook was called into action once more to keep out Nikos Ioannidis’ deflected shot from the edge of the area.
With seven minutes to go, the Arsenal goalkeeper was finally beaten - but only just. The teenager initially did superbly to keep out Ioannidis’ close-range shot, but as the ball span clear Soukias pounced and crashed a shot low into the bottom corner.
Worse was to follow in the 90th minute as Bellerin was sent off for a professional foul as Ioannidis ran through. To rub salt into the wound, Pinto curled home the resulting free kick.
It was a jarring blow to the Gunners’ NextGen series campaign, and one that underlines the size of the task they face in Europe this season.
- Bellerin Red Card
- Monteiro Yellow Card
- Hayden 79
- Jeffrey 58
- Gnabry 89
- Iwobi 79
- Eisfled 58
- Lipman 89
- Pinto Goal!
- Rougkalas Yellow Card
- Klodian 60
- Siopis 60
- Rikspun 64
- Soukias 60 Goal!
- Voutsiotis 60
- Pasalidis 64