By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
What a game, what a start.
Arsenal kicked off the new Under-21 Premier League with a highly-impressive victory over Bolton at Emirates Stadium - despite playing for more than an hour with only 10 men.
Terry Burton’s men made a bright start to the match on Monday evening, but looked to be heading for defeat when Damian Martinez was shown a straight red for fouling Chris Lester when through on goal. Bolton captain Adam Blakeman made no mistake from the spot and the visitors had the hosts on the ropes.
But substitute keeper James Shea kept the Gunners in the game with a string of fine saves, before a fantastic second-half display saw a brace from Conor Henderson and one from Thomas Eisfeld secure them the three points.
It was an encouraging way to usher in the new season, and gave a noisy crowd of 4,374 much to crow about as they made their way home.
Burton had named a strong side with the likes of Nico Yennaris, Ignasi Miquel and Eisfeld included. They had all been part of the Club’s tour to the Far East this summer, while exciting German winger Serge Gnabry had featured in the Gunners’ 4-0 defeat of Cologne.
Now they had the chance to make a further push for the first team at their home, Emirates Stadium.
It was the hosts who started the brighter, with Gnabry and Chuba Akpom at the heart of their attacking forays.
With six minutes gone, the lively Akpom collected the ball 25 yards from goal and ran at the backpeddalling Bolton defence, before slipping a well-weighted pass through for Gnabry. The 17-year-old raced into the box and seemed certain to open the scoring, but sliced the ball wide.
It was an encouraging start, and the Gunners just about shaded the opening exchanges before the game was turned on its head in the 25th minute as Martinez took down Lester in the Arsenal box.
Referee Paul Harris pointed to the spot and sent off the Argentine goalkeeper. Then, just to make matters worse for Arsenal, Blakeman beat substitute Shea with a firm spot kick to give Bolton the lead.
There was little Shea could do about the penalty, but moments later he demonstrated his quality with a superb sprawling save to push James Kelly’s curling effort around the post. And there was even better to come from the young goalkeeper.
Bolton were a man up, a goal up and in the ascendancy and on the half-hour mark they should have doubled their advantage - twice - but were denied by an inspired Shea. The Arsenal shotstopper firstly pulled off a point-blank save to push out Tom Eaves’ strike from six yards, then dragged himself to his feet to palm his follow-up around the post.
It was a fantastic bit of goalkeeping and got the appreciative Emirates faithful to their feet in support of the 21-year-old, who was certainly taking his chance to shine.
Eisfeld, meanwhile, has repeatedly shown his goalscoring prowess since joining the Club in January - indeed he scored twice in the Far East - and it came as no surprise when he got Arsenal back on level terms straight after half time.
But it was a goal that owed much to Gnabry and Akpom, who combined superbly in the box to create some space for the latter. Akpom hit the post with a firm strike, but the ball bounced back kindly for Eisfeld to convert from close range.
Suddenly 10-man Arsenal had their tails up and they should have taken the lead moments later but Bellerin fired over after good work by Gnabry.
But Arsenal were not to be denied, and just after the hour mark Akpom was felled just outside the box. It was an inviting position, and Henderson did not waste it as he curled a beautifully-flighted free kick around the wall and into the bottom corner.
Arsenal were rampant and with 69 minutes gone they extended their advantage after Jernade Meade was bundled over the area. Harris pointed to the spot once more, and Henderson coolly slotted his spot kick high into the roof of the net.
That was enough to settle matters, and enough to give Arsenal’s Under-21s the perfect start to the new season.
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