By Rob Kelly in Marseille
In the baggage hall at Marseille airport, a poster showing the city’s relative proximity to San Tropez instantly piqued the interest of a few inquisitive members of the Arsenal squad. Here they were in the south of France, just along the coast from the fabled playground of the rich and famous: what could be better?
But any vague notions that Marseille might boast the same glamour as its neighbour were quickly dispelled on the coach from the airport. As we wound our way through the narrow streets, flanked by a succession of towering high-rise blocks and graffiti-filled walls, the message was clear: this is a tough town and this is a tough test for the Gunners.
The NextGen Series has been an exciting, novel experience so far for the Club’s rising stars, but with Group Six so evenly poised the margin for error is shrinking rapidly. Victory tonight would be a major step towards the knockout stages of this elite European competition. Defeat? Well, let’s not think about defeat.
Arsenal kicked off their campaign with a convincing 3-0 victory over Marseille in late August, but facing the French club in their own backyard is a completely different challenge. Terry Burton dismisses any idea that his side might hold a psychological advantage over the hosts, and accepts they will have to be at their best to secure three precious points.
“We played well in that first game against them, with a good tempo and I think they were caught by surprise, which they won't be in this game,” he told Arsenal.com.
“They will press us much more, which they tried to do at Underhill, and try to get their tempo a bit higher. We will have to deal with that.
“As we found in Greece [in the 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos], and as everyone finds in these European games, when you go away from home it is very often different to what you’re used to.
“We will go there and try to put in a performance that will win us the game. But even if it doesn't [secure victory], the performance will still be the most important thing and how the players respond to whatever happens during the game.
“It will be a very difficult game for us, but that is what we want - that is why we are part of this competition.”
One of the stars of the corresponding fixture at Underhill was Chuba Akpom, whose clinical finishing earned him a brace. While the England Under-19 international is hoping for a repeat performance this evening, he acknowledges that this game will be a different prospect altogether.
“It is really important for us, I think we have to win it,” he said. “We are coming off a draw against Olympiacos at Barnet, and now we really want to win this one. We know it is vital and we believe we can get the three points.
“We put in a good performance against Marseille last time, and I managed to get in on a cross from Serge [Gnabry] for the first goal, then Kris Olsson slid me in for my second.
“It was nice to score twice, and I also got an assist so I’m feeling confident about this match. But we know that playing away from home will be much harder. Having lost to us before, they will be even more geared up for this game. They will come out with a bang and make it really hard for us. But I think we can cope with it.”
Arsenal will have to win without Serge Gnabry though, as the 17-year-old’s prodigious performances in both the Under-21 Premier League and NextGen Series have led to a call-up to the first team.
The German youth international made his Premier League debut against Norwich on Saturday and came off the bench against Schalke in the Champions League on Wednesday. Akpom admits that seeing his friend handed an opportunity is an inspiration to the whole squad.
“After sitting next to him in the changing room and playing with him in training and then suddenly seeing him on TV, it really motivates you,” the striker said.
“I think you need someone in the group to do that to give you hope for the future. We have both been in the same teams, so why can't I do it? That is the mentality that you've got to have.”
A starring role for Arsenal tonight would be the best way for Akpom to show that he is ready to follow in Gnabry’s footsteps.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source