By Rob Kelly at Underhill
A showpiece occasion calls for a showpiece performance - and that's what Arsenal delivered on Wednesday night to kick off their NextGen Series campaign in style.
From front to back, Terry Burton's side were superb and thoroughly deserved their 3-0 victory at Underhill. Sead Hajrovic was immaculate at the heart of the defence, Jon Toral the orchestrator in midfield and Hector Bellerin and Martin Angha a constant danger on the flanks.
The tireless Nico Yennaris delivered a captain's performance and deservedly scored the opening goal, while the excellent Chuba Akpom fired in the second during a one-sided first half.
The second period was a quieter affair as the tempo dropped slightly, but Akpom claimed his second of the game in the 83rd minute to help Arsenal make the perfect start to their European adventure.
It was quite some statement from the Gunners' coming generation.
Having seen Athletic Bilbao make an impressive start to Group Six by thrashing Olympiacos 4-0 on Tuesday, Burton needed his side to get off to a flying start. But with Reice Charles-Cook injured, and Josh Vickers also not fully fit, Burton put his faith in Stuart Moore.
The young goalkeeper only arrived at the Club on an emergency loan last week but put in an accomplished performance in the Under-18s’ 1-1 draw at Blackburn on Saturday. However, this would be major test for the 17-year-old against a powerful Marseille side.
Elsewhere, England Under-19 striker Akpom was selected to lead the line after impressing for the under-21s, while former Barcelona duo Hector Bellerin and Jon Toral also started. Serge Gnabry and Yennaris - both of whom tasted first-team football this summer - were also included in a strong line-up.
With the watching Arsene Wenger in attendance - he has promised to try to watch all of Arsenal’s games in the competition - the hosts were clearly keen to put on a show.
With just six minutes on the clock, the hugely-impressive Toral played a delightful ball into the feet of Kyle Ebecilio in space on the edge of the area. The Dutch midfielder had time and space, but his firm effort was well saved by Ibrahima Sy.
But with the Gunners’ waves of attacks building and building a goal seemed inevitable, even at this early stage. Moments later it duly arrived, as Akpom found space to the left of the Marseille area and cut the ball back for Yennaris to poke home from close range.
Bellerin’s pace charging forward from right back was causing the French side all sorts of problems and minutes later he cut in from the flank and beat two men on his way into the area but just lost control. However Arsenal remained in total control.
Burton’s side needed to take full advantage of their superiority, and in the 20th minute they did after Gnabry pounced on a loose pass out of defence. The German winger has been mentioned by Wenger as a possible candidate to make his first-team breakthrough this season, and he did his chances no harm by teeing up Akpom to fire home from six yards.
Confidence was flooding through the Arsenal ranks and they nearly scored a sensational goal moments later.
The move started with Elton Monteiro, flowed through Yennaris and Gnabry and suddenly saw the overlapping Martin Angha round the keeper and pull the ball back for Bellerin in the box. All it required was a finish to round off the perfect team goal, but the Spaniard could not make a clean connection and the ball was cleared off the line. It was exhilarating stuff nonetheless.
The second half started in much the same vein as the first, with Angha immediately breaking clear down the left and pulling the ball back for Kristoffer Olsson, but the Swede fired wide.
Another slick passing move saw Olsson play through Yennaris, who cut the ball back for Akpom who had raced into the area. The young striker had two bites of the cherry, but saw both of his close range efforts blocked on the line.
Still the attacks came: Akpom dragged a shot wide and Ebecilio’s free kick whistled past the post before Akpom latched on to Olsson’s pass to slot home his second of the match.
It was no more than the England Under-19 international deserved, and put the seal on yet another highly-encouraging night for Arsenal’s rising stars.
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