When Arsenal entered the NextGen Series there was much talk about how the competition would school the players involved for participation in the Champions League proper and, for Arsenal U19s, tomorrow night’s decisive fixture at home to Athletic Bilbao will certainly provide a stern examination of their resolve under considerable pressure.
To put it simply, Terry Burton’s side must win to secure progression to the next phase of the competition, which would open up realms of possibilities, including the chance of facing the cream of Barcelona’s young talent. Burton will be the first to remind his players not to get ahead of themselves, however, as his side have failed to win or score in any of their last four games in the competition since their impressive destruction of Marseille in the opening group game.
True, there have been mitigating circumstances to an extent, with Hector Bellerin receiving an untimely dismissal away to Olympiacos, whilst Marseille struck a late blow in the return fixture in France. It has been slightly worrying, however, that a team containing such creative talent, including the likes of Serge Gnabry, Kristoffer Olsson, Jon Toral and Chuba Akpom, has struggled to score with any regularity.
Tomorrow, though, provides one final chance to put things right. Arsenal drew 0-0 away to Bilbao last time out, with Reice Charles-Cook making an important penalty save to keep the young Gunners in with a chance of progression. Since then, some of the players eligible for this competition have sampled the real thing, with Martin Angha, Sead Hajrovic, Elton Monteiro, Chuba Akpom and Zak Ansah having made the trip to Greece in the Champions League with the first-team this week.
Given that, of those, only Angha received any game-time, with the Swiss defender coming on for all of seven minutes, it is likely that all five will be involved in some capacity this evening, and it will be especially interesting to see who is given the nod to start up front out of Akpom and Ansah.
Gnabry, like Nico Yennaris, Kyle Ebecilio and Ignasi Miquel, remains sidelined, but Burton will still be able to call upon a side that should be capable of dispatching Bilbao and ensuring that those who are missing tonight will still have some interest in the competition when 2013 comes around.
There will also be a battle to start in goal, with Macedonian stopper Deyan Iliev having impressed since joining the club, whilst Charles-Cook has caught the eye with some spectacular saves recently, particularly in Bilbao, which could give him the edge. Bilbao, meanwhile, are a tricky, technically-blessed side who caused Arsenal a multitude of problems in the previous fixture, with the lively Ager Aqueche particularly to the fore.
If he can be suppressed, and Burton finally manages to eek a goal out of his myriad of attacking talents, then by 8.45pm tomorrow night Arsenal will more than likely be celebrating progression to the next phase of this intriguing competition.
subs: Iliev, Mugabo, Ormonde-Ottewill, Lipman, Jebb, Bihmoutine, Ansah.