By Max Jones at iPro Stadium
Krystian Bielik made his first start for Arsenal Under-21s in their 1-0 defeat to Derby County at iPro Stadium on Tuesday.
The Poland Under-17 midfielder looked assured in possession and made vital interceptions as the young Gunners shut out the league’s second-highest scorers before the break.
Deyan Iliev could have been beaten soon after the restart but a post and the crossbar came to his rescue to deny Jamie Hanson from successive free-kicks.
But Arsenal’s resistance eventually wore down and Ivan Calero smashed home from six yards to secure all three points for Derby.
SETTING THE SCENE
Steve Gatting made three changes to the side that beat Newcastle United 2-1 at St James’ Park at the start of February.
Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill returned from injury to replace Marc Bola at left back while Bielik was introduced to under-21s football at the expense of Renny Smith.
Elsewhere Chuba Akpom, fresh from first-team duty at Old Trafford, captained Gatting’s side while returning loanees Jack Jebb and Matt Macey started the game on the bench.
A win at the iPro would see Arsenal move level on points with second-placed Derby, but with three games in hand over Tuesday’s hosts.
With both sides favouring fluid, attacking football the 500 fans in attendance were right to expect a close and exciting game.
Derby led the charge when the lively Shaquille McDonald drifted infield and rolled a low strike just wide of the post.
Daniel Crowley was next to surge into the box but he saw the same result as his counterpart, his shot failing to test Kelle Roos before the goalkeeper comfortably kept out his next attempt.
Calero - signed from Atletico Madrid last summer - caused Arsenal problems through the first half. He set up Callum Guy on the edge of the box, but the midfielder smashed well over.
Derby made up for their lack of first-half chances within 10 minutes of the restart. Hanson first curled a 20-yard free-kick against the outside of a post before rattling his next off the crossbar.
Arsenal failed to react to the warnings and were fortunate when former Gunner Alban Bunjaku’s shot deflected over, but they were punished moments later when Calero swept the resulting corner in from close range.
The Spain Under-19 winger looked full of confidence and would have doubled his and Derby’s tally were it not for Iliev’s reactions and a sliced half-volley.
It took until the 89th minute for Arsenal to register their first shot on target in the second half when Bielik rose highest to meet Crowley’s corner, but his header was cleared off the line before Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ powerful strike was beaten away by Roos.
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