By Rob Kelly at San Mames
Arsenal’s hopes of progressing to the knockout stages of the NextGen Series are in the balance after they were held to a goalless draw by 10-man Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night.
Following their last-gasp defeat to Marseille last time out, Terry Burton’s side knew they needed six points from their final two games to give themselves the best chance possible of making it through Group Six.
And while they had to settle for a draw at San Mames, this still proved a satisfactory evening for the Club’s rising stars, who delivered an encouraging performance against a talented Bilbao side.
In a frenetic and highly-entertaining first half, Arsenal went close through Jon Toral and Martin Angha, but it was the hosts who had the best opportunity.
With 23 minutes on the clock they won a questionable penalty, and captain Guillermo Fernandez stepped up in front of an expectant home crowd. It would have been a cruel blow on Arsenal had he scored, but Reice Charles-Cook threw himself to his right to make a crucial save.
The drama continued 10 minutes later as Bilbao captain Fernandez was shown a straight red card after catching Sead Hajrovic with an elbow in an aeriel challenge. The Arsenal defender later had to have stiches to the wound.
It was the opening that the Gunners needed, but despite carving out good chances for Serge Gnabry and Angha, they could find no way through for the three points they craved.
Despite that frustration, this point could still prove important to their hopes of progression to the knockout stages.
Burton made four changes for this match, one of which - Isaac Hayden for Kyle Ebecilio - was enforced after the latter’s injury in Marseille.
Elsewhere, Charles-Cook returned in goal at the expense of Deyan Iliev, while Thomas Eisfeld and Gnabry bolstered the attack.
Athletic were expected to be Arsenal’s toughest test of the group stage and they showed why within 10 seconds of kick off as some neat interplay sent Inaki Williams through. The rangy forward almost seemed to not believe his luck at having such an early chance, and his low shot was well saved by Charles-Cook.
That early opportunity heralded a thrilling first half, and in the sixth minute it was the Gunners’ turn to threaten as Jon Toral saw his close-range shot saved, before Martin Angha fired the follow-up narrowly wide.
Bilbao’s youth system has already produced such gems as Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain, and you could see here why they have garnered such a reputation for developing the stars of tomorrow.
Midway through the opening period they began to exert some concerted pressure on the Arsenal goal, as Unai Lopez and Fernandez both came close to finding the opening goal.
But in the 23rd minute they were presented with a golden opportunity as they won a soft penalty after Fernandez went down in the area after a tussle with Kris Olsson. The Arsenal players were unhappy at the referee’s decision, but justice was soon done as Charles-Cook brilliantly pushed the striker’s spot kick around the post.
Things soon got worse for the Bilbao captain as he was given his marching orders after an aeriel challenge with Hajrovic left the defender crumpled on the ground. Luckily, the Swiss was able to continue after lengthy treatment, but Fernandez’s night was over.
The marauding Hector Bellerin and Olsson both carved out opportunities in the closing stages of the first half, but it remained deadlocked at the interval after a breathless 45 minutes.
Burton’s side made a bright start to the second period, and went close through Eisfeld, Angha and Gnabry in quick succession as they went in search of the goal that would help keep their NextGen Series dream alive.
To Bilbao’s credit, they remained a real threat going forward despite their numerical disadvantage, and kept their shape and discipline at the back to frustrate Arsenal.
The visitors knew a win would be a major boost to their hopes of making it through to the knockout stages of this competition, and as time ticked on they continued to press and probe.
Gnabry remained a lively presence on the right flank, and he created the best opportunity of the half in the closing stages as he weaved in from the right but saw his firm shot held by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
That proved to be the last effort of a richly-entertaining night in northern Spain.
The NextGen dream is still alive...just.
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