By Rob Kelly at Meadow Park
Arsenal produced an exhilarating first-half performance to beat a talented Aston Villa side 4-2 at Meadow Park on Tuesday night.
Steve Gatting’s side were in sensational form during the opening 45 minutes and once Serge Gnabry gave them the lead, there was no stopping them.
Jon Toral struck a brace - although the returning Benik Afobe may yet claim the second - and Emmanuel Frimpong headed in a fourth just before half-time.
Villa grabbed one back through Michael Drennan and soon started to exert some real pressure on the Gunners, with Graham Burke putting Arsenal nerves on edge with a second in the 75th minute.
But despite the visitors’ spirited fightback, the Gunners’ first-half masterclass proved enough to claim the points on a satisfying night for the Club’s rising stars.
SETTING THE SCENE
It had been more than a month since the under-21s’ previous match, the 2-1 victory over Wolves at Emirates Stadium, and Gatting made seven changes for this contest.
The big news was the return of Afobe up front after eight months out with a knee injury, while Frimpong was called in to bolster the midfield. Gnabry, fresh from his appearance off the bench at Old Trafford on Sunday, was also included in a strong team.
Villa, meanwhile, included eight members of the squad that won last season’s NextGen Series, including former Gunner Lewis Kinsella.
With Arsene Wenger in attendance, this was a real opportunity for some of Arsenal’s rising stars to stake their claim for first-team action - and they certainly took it.
Gatting’s side made a bright start to the game, with Gnabry’s testing Benjamin Siegrist with a curling shot after nine minutes that the Villa keeper palmed away.
With Afobe causing real problems for the visitors, Arsenal were clearly in the mood and in the 16th minute they grabbed the lead. Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill found Toral in space to the left of the Villa box and the Spaniard kept his composure to pick out the onrushing Gnabry to slot home from six yards.
Nine minutes later the roles were reversed as Thomas Eisfeld played in Gnabry on the right and the German picked out Toral with a low cross that the teenager coolly converted from close range.
By now the Gunners were playing with a real swagger and it came as no surprise when they added a third in the 36th minute. Afobe raced on to a lofted through ball and lobbed the onrushing Siegrist, with the ball bouncing down for Toral to force over the line as Villa scrambled to try to clear it.
Afobe was in fine form, playing on the shoulders of the Villa backline and he came close again with another lob over Siegrist that drifted narrowly wide. With the game so open, another goal seemed inevitable and it arrived right on half time as Frimpong headed in Gnabry’s corner. It had been quite some first-half display.
If the visitors had hoped for any let-off from Arsenal in the second half, it was immediately dismissed as Afobe was played through straight from kick-off. The striker tried to take it around Siegrist, but the keeper did well to get a hand to it and push it away from the forward.
Minutes later Toral fired wide from close range after good work from the impressive Ormonde-Ottewill down the left flank.
However, in the 53rd minute a momentary lapse by Matt Macey presented Drennan with a great opportunity, and the Villa youngster slotted the ball home for the visitors.
The goal seemed to stir Villa into life and they suddenly set about the Gunners with real gusto - and pulled another one back in the 75th minute when Burke forced the ball in after a scramble in the area.
Despite some uncomfortable moments towards the end, that sensational first-half display proved enough for Gatting’s side to claim another hard-earned victory.
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