Arsenal 4 (Hajrovic, Ansah, Toral, Hayden) Athletic Bilbao 2 (Aqueche (pen), Alvarez)
By Jeorge Bird @Underhill Stadium
A spirited Arsenal U19s side made up for their earlier failings in the competition to produce an impressive display and advance to the next phase of the NextGen Series with a 4-2 victory over Athletic Bilbao in an entertaining fixture at Underhill this evening.
Terry Burton’s side knew that they required a win to avoid elimination, and Jon Toral seemed more determined than most to achieve that aim, with the Spaniard finding the net and also teeing up Zak Ansah, who was making his first appearance in the tournament. Sead Hajrovic and the resolute Isaac Hayden also found the net late on, which rendered Bilbao’s two goals meaningless. Arsenal, though, had goalkeeper Reice Charles-Cook to thank for some outstanding saves to deny the threatening Bilbao attack.
Arsenal included three players who travelled with the first-team to Olympiacos this week, whilst Samir Bihmoutine came in for Elton Monteiro in defence, with Martin Angha switching to centre-back. Serge Gnabry, Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris were all absent through injury.
subs: Ormonde-Ottewill (for Bihmoutine, 78), Mugabo (for Toral, 80). Not used: Jeffrey, Lipman, Fagan, Jebb, Iliev.
Arsenal started brightly and Hayden nearly engineered an opening early on, but his through ball just eluded Chuba Akpom. At the other end, Martin Angha, fresh from making his Champions League debut, made an impressive block to deny a Bilbao chance, before Gorka Santamaria’s effort was well gathered by Charles-Cook.
The first meaningful effort of the game came courtesy of Kristoffer Olsson, with the Swedish midfielder, who has looked assured in a deeper midfield role in recent fixtures, seeing a fierce effort deflected over the bar. From the resultant corner, Arsenal opened the scoring with Hajrovic rising high and heading home emphatically past Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Arsenal nearly undone all their good work in an instant, however, when a slack pass from Bihmoutine was pounced upon by Santamaria, but Charles-Cook was again equal to the danger. The Arsenal goalkeeper could do little, however, to keep out Ager Aqueche’s penalty after Hayden was rather harshly penalised for a challenge in the area.
With the sides now level, the game began to open up and it made for an enthralling spectacle, with both sides creating plenty of chances. Angha played a delightful cross-field ball which was knocked down by Olsson into the path of Ansah, and the forward struck a powerful effort over. Ansah had the ball in the net soon afterwards but the strike was correctly ruled out for offside.
Charles-Cook then had to tip a free-kick over his crossbar, before the impressive Unai Lopez twice came close with efforts from distance. Hayden responded with a burst forward but his shot lacked conviction, then Charles-Cook made another fine stop before the interval.
Arsenal emerged from the break with their tails up and came close through Thomas Eisfeld, who had been rather quiet up until that point. Akpom then brushed aside four opponents in one barnstorming move which culminated in Eisfeld, who went down rather theatrically it must be said, winning a free-kick.
Olsson took the resultant set-piece but his effort was saved, but Charles-Cook was being kept busy down the other end, with the 18 year old continuing to add to his repertoire of important stops. Arsenal sensed blood, however, and came close to regaining the lead when Hayden’s cross just eluded the sliding Akpom.
Arsenal finally made it 2-1 when a neat, flowing move eventually culminated in Toral crossing for Ansah to convert his first goal since his return from injury. Eisfeld then went close before the game was seemingly put beyond doubt when Olsson’s cross hit off Angha and, rather fortuitously, bounced into the path of Toral, who turned home to make it 3-1.
Arsenal then introduced Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill and Alfred Mugabo into the fray, and shortly afterwards qualification was rubber-stamped when Hayden finished adroitly following a neat ball into the box.
Bilbao refused to give up, and reduced the deficit to 4-2 when Inaki Williams headed past the stranded Charles-Cook, but, despite some late pressure, Arsenal had done enough to prevail and could now face the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan when the competition resumes in the New Year.
Reice Charles-Cook- 8- Another brilliant showing from the 18 year old, who made several outstanding saves.
Hector Bellerin-6- Didn’t raid forward as often as usual, but was largely solid defensively.
Martin Angha-7- Captained the side well and made several important clearances.
Sead Hajrovic-7- The Swiss youngster made some important interventions.
Samir Bihmoutine-6- Largely unfazed, he stuck to his defensive duties well.
Isaac Hayden-7- Made some excellent forward runs and also very composed in a defensive sense.
Kristoffer Olsson-7- Demonstrated his sublime skills and played a key role in Hayden’s goal.
Jon Toral-9- Two impressive finishes and an assist for the Spaniard in addition to some sumptuous through-balls.
Thomas Eisfeld-6- Showed flashes of his potential, but the German was not heavily involved.
Zak Ansah-6- Worked hard and took his goal well, even if he did not receive as many shooting opportunities as he would have liked.
Chuba Akpom-7- One sublime piece of skill to bulldoze past the Bilbao defence, he worked hard all evening.
Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill (for Bihmoutine, 78)- Slotted in well at left-back.
Alfred Mugabo (for Toral, 80)- Operated on right flank but too little time to make major impact.
Not used: Deyan Iliev, Jack Jebb, Zach Fagan, Austin Lipman, Anthony Jeffrey.