Benik Afobe scored a hat-trick as Arsenal under-18s defeated a spirited Nottingham Forest side 5-3 to retain their Premier Academy League trophy at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon. In front of a small crowd, the Gunners started sluggishly and fell behind but Afobe levelled before setting up Luke Freeman to put Arsenal 2-1 ahead. Afobe made it 3-1 just before half-time but Forest halved the deficit early in the second period. However, ensuing penalties from Afobe and Freeman ensured that the trophy remained with Steve Bould’s side.
Bould made just one change from the side that defeated Manchester United on penalties in the semi-final on Friday, with Oguzhan Ozyakup, Arsenal’s goalscorer in that fixture, replacing Roarie Deacon, who dropped to the bench. Deacon was joined by Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Kyle Bartley, who recently returned from loan spells at Doncaster Rovers and Sheffield United respectively.
subs: McDermott, Bartley, Deacon, E.Thomas, Meade.
Arsenal were surprisingly slow out of the traps and, after a couple of minutes in which both sides attempted to adjust themselves to the prestigious surroundings, it was the visitors who created the first opportunity. Captain Nico Yennaris was exposed down the right and Mullen zipped past him before firing into the side netting.
It would be a harbinger of things to come because, just moments later, the same scenario occurred on the left, only this time with significantly more severe consequences. Cedric Evina had gone walkabout and Thomson marauded into the vacated space and crossed for Elliot to slot home.
If anything was going to wake Bould’s side from their slumber, then that was it and they attempted to respond immediately with Conor Henderson having a shot deflected for a corner following a neat interchange. Afobe then had a penalty claim turned down but Forest were still threatening intermittently and Ignasi Miquel had to be alert to block the danger on one occasion, whilst Diagne drilled a shot wide another.
Arsenal, though, were slowly beginning to click into gear. Henderson found Freeman with a lofted ball but the latter’s header on goal was tame. Ozyakup then had a ferocious shot blocked, whilst Chuks Aneke drilled a good effort narrowly wide following a well-delivered cross by Evina.
Frimpong and Henderson then tried their luck from free-kicks to no avail before Arsenal finally made the breakthrough. It came courtesy of one of Henderson’s trade mark long passes. Afobe latched onto it and saw his shot saved before exchanging passes with Freeman and slotting home for his 18th goal of the season. This was more like it from Arsenal and, under normal circumstances that goal could be said to be worth the admission price alone.
Arsenal were determined to go into the break on top and Evina was proving a useful outlet down the left, crossing for Aneke who headed just over. Ozyakup perhaps should have done better after a poor punch from the Forest ‘keeper presented him with a decent opportunity and the Dutchman had another effort saved by the ‘keeper after good work from Henderson.
The Gunners finally took the lead five minutes before the break, with Aneke threading in Afobe for a simple finish. It had to be said Bould’s side deserved it after recovering from their disappointing start. The half ended with Henderson and Aneke both coming close with further efforts but Arsenal were content to go into the break 2-1 up.
Arsenal’s vibrancy didn’t lose its momentum during the interval as they burst out of the traps in the second period. Aneke, who was proving to be a real handful for the Forest defenders, slotted in Freeman who shot straight at the ‘keeper after some nimble footwork.
Then, out of nowhere, Forest struck to reduce the arrears, with Thomson slotting past Shea in a similar fashion to the first goal. Complacency, it seemed, had got the better of Arsenal and they had paid for it.
That setback only made the Gunners even more determined to put the game to bed. Henderson saw a shot blocked after being played in by Afobe and then the latter was awarded a penalty after being brought down in the area following a clumsy challenge. The England u-17 international stepped up himself and slotted it right down the middle to complete his hat-trick and put Arsenal back ahead.
Subsequently, Freeman saw a shot saved and then Arsenal were awarded another spot kick when Afobe was brought down again by Wilson. Freeman stepped up this time and hit it to the ‘keepers right.
That, it seemed, would be that as far as the game and the league title was concerned, but again Arsenal switched off and allowed Forest to carve them open almost immediately after the restart, with Mullen tucking home on this occasion.
Again Arsenal went forward in response and Miquel saw a header acrobatically cleared before the game finally was done and dusted once and for all with nine minutes remaining. Aneke found Afobe who unselfishly crossed to Freeman to finish and make it 5-3.
There were further opportunities to make it six, with Aneke and Afobe both coming close but that, in the end, was just enough.
In conclusion it was a microcosm of the season: superb going forward but fragile at the back. The latter was disregarded as Yennaris and co. hoisted the trophy aloft in front of the small crowd. Arsenal have worked extremely hard behind the scenes to nurture these players and build for the future. Hopefully this won’t be the last time the likes of Afobe and Aneke in particular are engaged in celebration at Emirates Stadium.
subs not used : Sean McDermott, Kyle Bartley, Roarie Deacon, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Jernade Meade.