By Rob Kelly
The NextGen Series has been quite a journey for Hector Bellerin.
The Spanish right back caught the eye in the opening game of the competition with an exhilarating display against Marseille, was sent off in the next at Olympiacos and faced a less-than-perfect pitch last time out in the south of France.
It has been a major learning experience for the 17-year-old, but he returns to his homeland for his next test, against opponents he knows well.
While in Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Bellerin regularly lined up against Athletic Bilbao and appreciates the size of challenge facing Arsenal on Thursday evening. To make things that bit tougher, it is a game the Club’s rising stars really need a positive result from if they are to progress to the knockout stages.
“I know a few players from the Spanish national team at Bilbao, and they have a good team,” Bellerin told Arsenal.com.
“They work really hard, they do 90 minutes of running so it will obviously be a very tough game for us.
“Bilbao don't play in a typically Spanish way, they try to play the ball and when they haven't got it they run at you and never give up. It will be a very big test for us.”
Famed for its fierce Basque identity, in recent years Bilbao have brought through the likes of Fernando Llorente - one of the hottest properties in European football - and the brilliant playmaker Iker Muniain.
They have a commitment to youth to rival Arsenal’s, and will be licking their lips at the prospect of taking on Terry Burton’s side.
“We’re all expecting a really hard game,” the reserves and head development coach said. “Historically they have a very good youth set-up there, with a lot of players progressing through to the first team, so it will be a big test for us.
“But there is no pressure [on us to win] really. It is nice to play these games, and you want to face good opposition who will give you a good challenge, and that is what we will get in Spain.”
The NextGen Series started promisingly for the Gunners, with a 3-0 defeat of Marseille at Underhill laying down a marker to the rest of Europe. But a disappointing loss in Athens to Olympiacos set them back, before a frustrating goalless draw against the same opponents at home three weeks later. A last-gasp defeat to Marseille last month puts Burton’s side in an difficult position, but with six points left to play for hope is not lost for the Club’s coming generation.
No matter what happens over the next few games against Bilbao, Burton feels his side have benefited from experiencing both the highs and lows of European competition.
“It is mainly about the football, and the fact that different teams play in slightly different ways,” he said. “They have had to cope with playing away from home, dealing with how European opponents play and all the other stuff, like staying in hotels and the preparation for these games.
“Hopefully in their careers they will get plenty of opportunity to experience these sort of trips, but I am not sure you ever get used to long coach trips or plane journeys! They are just part and parcel of being a footballer.”
- Follow @ArsenalLive for live tweets from Thursday’s game from 6.25pm (UK time). Kick off is at 6.30pm