By Rob Kelly
The good news for Arsenal’s rising stars is that their NextGen Series fate rests in their own hands.
The equation is relatively simple: beat Athletic Bilbao tonight and they will secure safe passage through to the knockout stage of the elite European youth competition.
The bad news, however, is that they face a richly-talented Basque side high on confidence following a 5-0 thrashing of Marseille last week. A draw against Bilbao may not be enough to take Arsenal through, while a defeat will ensure they finish bottom of Group Six.
It is a precarious situation, but striker Nigel Neita is not prepared to contemplate anything but a resounding victory and a place in the quarter-finals.
“Everyone is up for it: it is our last game in the group and we have nothing to lose,” the teenager told Arsenal.com. “We just have to go for it and I know that we’re all raring to go.
“I’m sure it will be a good game, and the fact it is at home will be a real boost for us. Hopefully there will be lots of fans at Barnet, and I really think we will do enough to go through.
“Nobody wants the competition to end for us. It has come down to this game and if we are knocked out, we will have to wait until next year to get another chance.
“There are a lot of boys such as myself who will be too old to play next season, so it would be great to get a result and continue. If we can do that, then hopefully we can go on and win the whole thing. But first we have to focus on Bilbao.
“They are a decent side, they like to play good football so they're quite similar to us. But I feel that we have a bit more about us and if we are at the races on Thursday night, we will come out on top.”
Arsenal started their NextGen campaign in fine fashion with a 3-0 victory against Marseille in September, but have failed to score since despite some promising displays. Neita accepts that they have made life difficult for themselves, but is confident the best is yet to come from Terry Burton’s talented young side.
“There have been some ups and downs, but it is our first time in the competition and there are a lot of young boys in our squad,” he said. “It has been a great experience for us all and a really good tournament so far.
“If we can get the win against Bilbao it will be even better for us because we can go on and play some different teams in the knockout stages. Everyone's confidence will get a real boost if we get a result.”
Neita goes into Thursday’s game in buoyant mood after scoring his first goal of the season against Reading for the under-21s last weekend. The 18-year-old admits that breaking his duck has been a huge weight off his shoulders.
“It's a relief - my last goal was in pre-season so it was good to get on the scoresheet again,” he said. “I was buzzing when it went in and hopefully they will start rolling in from now on.
“Sometimes it can play on your mind when you don't score. If you are getting opportunities but you're not scoring then it can worry you but [the goal at Reading] was one of my first real chances.
“If I hadn't scored that one then maybe my confidence would have gone, but I thought I took it well. It gave me an immediate boost and I was just trying to make things happen straight away afterwards.
“Now I just want to take that into the rest of the season - hopefully starting against Bilbao on Thursday.”
- Entry to Thursday's game against Athletic Bilbao is FREE. We will have live tweets from Underhill from 6.55pm (UK time) on Thursday on the @ArsenalLive account. Kick off is at 7pm