By Rob Kelly
The NextGen Series returns on Thursday night for Arsenal’s rising stars - and one member of the squad is looking forward to the game more than most.
The start of a new season is traditionally an exciting time for players, but for Josh Rees it only meant frustration. A knee injury sustained in a July training session left him sidelined for four weeks, and he could only watch on as the Gunners made their bow in the NextGen Series.
For a sporting purist like Rees, it was fascinating to watch his team-mates test themselves against Marseille and then Olympiacos - but ultimately he was desperate to be involved. It was a chance to catch Arsene Wenger’s eye and prove you belong among the European elite, but all he could do was rest and recuperate.
The 19-year-old has returned to full fitness in time for the clash with Olympiacos at Underhill, and hopes to get his first taste of the competition.
“It is a brilliant tournament, it is almost as if you are at the stage when you are among the first team,” Rees told Arsenal.com. “It teaches you a lot and when players get these experiences at a young age they tend to push on.
“You are playing against the best players of your age in Europe, you’re travelling to games and you're getting into the way of life that the top players are used to. That will only help in the long run.
“I was very impressed with how we played in the first game against Marseille. I caught a bit of the second one at Olympiacos and it was a bit frustrating, but it is still a massive experience to be able to go to somewhere like Greece and play.
“I am sure the guys all learnt something they wouldn’t have done in an under-21 game. It is a different experience and it will ultimately make you a better player. I can’t wait to get involved, hopefully I’ll get a chance on Thursday night.”
Rees played the full 90 minutes of the under-21s’ defeat to West Brom on Monday afternoon, and enjoyed playing alongside Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong again.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I have played alongside them before in youth games and they are great examples of what the academy can produce.
“Even after 14 months out you can see Jack still has the quality there, and Manny has the tenacity that he's always had.
“Those guys show that it can be done to go from the academy all the way through to the first team. It also proves that as a Club we can produce top-quality players.
“I remember when Jack was breaking through, he was in the team all the time and was probably one of the boss' first picks on the teamsheet.
“That shows the rest of us that we are so close [to a breakthrough] - sometimes we don’t appreciate how close we actually are. You just need something extra to get you there.”
It is not only Wilshere and Frimpong who act as an inspiration to Rees. Some of his team-mates - Hector Bellerin, Martin Angha and Serge Gnabry - all got their chance in the first team in the Capital One Cup against Coventry last week, and it has sharpened Rees’ own hunger.
“Obviously the boss is watching if he is bringing through young guys like them,” he said. “I play with them every day, I know their qualities and what they bring the team and what I have to do to catch the eye.
“It is really pleasing to see them all come on and do well, and Iggy [Miquel] even scored a goal. And like with Jack, it is inspirational to be playing with those sort of guys.”
A big crowd is expected at Underhill for Thursday's match, and Rees hopes they once again create a special atmosphere for the team.
“The fans were brilliant for the Marseille game,” he said. “Arsenal are a massive club, they always have a really passionate support and as players we feed off that.
“I am usually really focused on the game but you can notice them, and their support can make a big difference. It will be great if I get the chance to play in front of them against Olympiacos.”
Follow live updates against Olympiacos on the @ArsenalLive Twitter account from 6.55pm (UK time).
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