By Rob Kelly
Entering Arsenal’s London Colney HQ on Tuesday morning, the sense of excitement among the Club’s rising stars was tangible. It was the eve of their first game in the NextGen Series, and the dressing room was “buzzing”.
Every player you asked, whether they had tasted first-team football or not in their embryonic careers, would repeat the word, the enthusiasm etched on their faces. The Club, the staff, the squad - everyone was “buzzing”.
Even Arsène Wenger, with more than 30 years’ experience in the game, has admitted he will try to watch "every single game” of the elite European competition, which pits the Gunners against Athletic Bilbao, Olympiacos and tonight’s opponents, Marseille.
The NextGen Series - for all intents and purposes an under-19s Champions League - offers an invaluable opportunity for the best young players in Europe to showcase their potential. And that starts this evening at Underhill.
“Everyone is excited about it - it’s going to be a great experience,” Martin Angha told Arsenal.com. “This is a chance for us to show the world what we can do. [If we do well] maybe the boss will put us into the first team - there are many possibilities for us.
“Flying around Europe is going to be fun, I'm sure we’ll have a few laughs and jokes. But more importantly it is good for us to travel and prepare for the games, to see what it will be like when we are in the first team.
“We can learn a lot from these games. This is what the first team have to do in the Champions League, they face teams from many different countries, and we will do the same. We will have to adapt very quickly.
“I just want to play as many games as I can, test myself against the best young players in the world and hopefully improve in every match. We’re all buzzing about NextGen.”
Coach Terry Burton admits these are “exciting times” for his players, but warns that the tournament will pose real questions of his squad.
“It is a different challenge for the players, they will be set different problems and that is all good experience for them,” he said.
“They will come up against different types of players, which you hope will speed up the learning process in different areas.
“It is about how you deal with those challenges. Can you cope with what the opposition throw at you, can you cause them a problem?”
The tournament could also help the Arsenal players demonstrate their credentials under the watchful eye of Wenger. And that is a challenge they must take, according to Burton.
“That is what it is about - you have to catch the manager's eye,” he said. “He has to know about you, and realise what you have got and what you can do. That is vital to the next stage of their development.
“We can recommend players, and push them forward if they are doing well, but it helps tremendously [if he sees them do well]. In my short time here, I have seen that Arsène knows the young players, and knows what they are about.
“If he sees [them play well], it gives them a better opportunity and helps with the pathway that has always been there from the youth team to the first team.”
That all starts tonight against Marseille, a match that could well be the first step on the path to NextGen glory according to young Spanish defender Hector Bellerin.
“We just have to play every game as if it is a final, and try to get through the group stage,” he said. “If we do the right things, we have a really good set of players coming through and we have a good chance of winning the tournament. Why not?
“The likes of Jon Toral, Serge Gnabry and Kris Olsson are all really good players and they will help the team be up there among the very best. Some of them will be the ones who will make a difference in tough matches.
“It would be great to play [Bellerin’s former club] Barcelona in the final! It would be a really good game, I think we would have a chance to beat them. But first we must concentrate on Marseille. We’re really, really looking forward to it.”
- Entry to Wednesday's NextGen Series match against Marseille is FREE