Date: 7th December 2012 at 1:36pm
Written by:

Having seen a match on Saturday (the limp defeat to Swansea), a match on Monday evening (AEK Athens played at home to PAS Giannina at the Louis Pyros Olympic Stadium some four hours after I landed in Athens and tickets were 10 euros a piece), a match on Tuesday (the defeat to Olympiacos) I was naturally left to ponder on what to do with the three day gap between Olympiacos and West Brom. Fortunately, the youth and reserve leagues have undergone a long needed shot in the arm this season and the kids play much more regularly.

So the burning question of what to do with my Thursday evening was solved by Arsenal`s final Nextgen group stage match against Athletic Bilbao at Underhill. Terry Burton`s boys needed a win to ensure progression to the knockout phase. Bilbao were already assured following their 5-0 destruction of Marseilles last week. But under Marceloa Bielsa, Bilbao have earned a reputation for nurturing technically nourished young players from a very early age. It was a game that promised to deliver. It made good on its potential, as many of the young players on display will also wish to do.

The opening twenty minutes were amongst the best passages of action I have seen this season. Both sides roared out of the traps. The match was a blur of short, incisive passes, aggressive pressing, full backs playing as virtual wingers, last ditch tackles. It wasn`t so much the pitter patter of tiny feet audible on the Underhill surface, as every footstep resonated on the unforgiving, hard, icy surface. It didn`t detract from the quality of the game.

The starting line up showed Burton meant business and wanted progression. Players that had played in the 2-2 draw with Reading on Sunday, as well as members of the squad for Athens played with Eisfield, Akpom, Toral and Ansah forming a constantly rotating forward line. The enterprise almost paid off in the first minute, as the well built Akpom grappled for a loose ball in the area, it broke for Olsson eighteen yards out, but he fired just over the bar. No sooner had Bilbao appeared to clear the danger than Arsenal took the lead, as Bellerin`s right wing cross was forced over the line by Jon Toral.

But Bilbao seemed entirely unperturbed and fought fire with fire. Right back Lekue galloped forward down Bilbao`s right, his low cross found Santamaria, who controlled and spun in the area, but Charles Reice-Cook produced a smart save. However, within three minutes of falling behind, the Basque side were level. Lopez and Isaac Hayden raced for a ball in the area following more good work by Lukue. Hayden, recently promoted from the U-18s, showed his inexperience by sticking out a leg and Lopez had every reason he needed to go over. A penalty was duly awarded and Aqueche nonchalantly dispatched.

Bilbao closed Arsenal down furiously in possession, but the Gunners were prepared to be more direct. Angha`s searching diagonal found Eisfeld, who headed down on the corner of the penalty area, Zak Ansah`s volley flew just over. Ansah had a goal chalked off for offside when he latched onto Olsson`s through ball. By my reckoning, the linesman`s flag looked a tad premature. But Bilbao were trading blows and Aqueche`s dipping free kick was well turned over by Reice-Cook. Isaac Hayden used a mixture of brute force and tody feet to bulldoze past three Atheltic defenders, but his shot was comfortably saved.

The referee`s whistle for half time was a cursed event such was the absorbing nature of the contest. But Arsenal`s need for the points began to tell on a competitive yet tiring Bilbao side. The front three of Akpom, Toral and Ansah, with Eisfeld pushing in behind in the triaquestra role became much more fluid. Toral`s clever reverse pass put Eisfeld in on the left, but his low shot was dragged just wide. Even holding midfielder Isaac Hayden was popping up on the wings, his low cross from the right was just missed by the sliding Chuba Akpom. Bilbao`s attacks were becoming less threatening, Underbarrena`s long shot went so far overderbarrena that it nearly took out the window of a house behind Barnet`s South Stand.

Left back Irioni progressed up Arsenal`s line past Bellerin, swung in a delicious cross which Santamaria caught on the chest trap and volleyed goalwards, Reice Cook`s reflexes were once again sharp enough to make the save. But just as Bilbao turned the screw, Arsenal retook the lead with a flowing move. Akpom flicked the ball to Jon Toral on the right of Arsenal`s attack, Toral played a reverse pass to Hayden in the right channel, he looked to be through on goal, but had the presence of mind to square the ball for Zak Ansah to bundle home from close range. It demonstrated the sort of movement and subtlety the first team`s attack has so lacked in recent weeks.

By now, Arsenal were blitzkrigeing Bilbao and had brushed them aside with three goals inside ten minutes. Two minutes after taking a 2-1 lead, Arsenal grabbed a third. Irioni again lost the runner in Arsenal`s right channel as Olsson slipped a delicate through ball to Martin Angha, who had come forward for a corner. Once again, the young Gunners demonstrated an altruistic streak. Angha might easily have shot across the goalkeeper, but instead squared the ball for Jon Toral, who stopped to head the ball in from close range. It actually looked like he body popped it in from where I was sat.

The home side were well in the mood and moved into a 4-1 lead minutes later. Olsson collected a short corner from Ansah and nonchalantly strolled through the Bilbao defence to the by line and cut the ball back for Isaac Hayden to stroke home. It was a ten minute whirlwind which had swept the away side away, but they refused to accept their fate in the eye of the storm. They were quickly back to 4-2 as minds and legs began to sag for Arsenal. Ansah half cleared a corner which looked to be heading for touch, until Lopez caught it on his boot and whipped in a devilish cross for Alvarez to head into the far corner.

The Basque side kept coming at a weary Arsenal, who brought on Ormonde Otterwill and Mugabo to try and preserve the result. But it was too little too late, as Arsenal won a thoroughly absorbing game 4-2. The win puts them through to the knockout phase of the Nextgen Series. It`s been an odd group for Arsenal, who did not score in four of their six group games (they didn`t score away from home at all). They essentially did all of the work in the opening game (the 3-0 dismantling of Marseilles) and this final one. In the knockout phase they will need to quickly apply lessons they will have learned about playing away from home on the continent. But progression ensures their continued education. And that`s the whole point. LD.

ARSENAL: 1.CHARLES-COOK, 2.BELLERIN, 6.HAJROVIC, 5.ANGHA(c), 3.BIHMOUTINE (15.Ormonde-Otterwill 78), 4.HAYDEN, 8.OLSSON, 10.EISFELD, 7.ANSAH, 11.TORAL (12.Mugabo `80), 9.AKPOM. Unused: 13.Iliev, 14.Fagan, 16.Lipman, 17.Jeffrey.

ATHLETIC BILBAO: 1.ARRIZABALAGA, 2.LEKUE, 5.ARTABE, 6.ALVAREZ, 3.IRIONDO, 4.LOPEZ, 11.WILLIAMS, 8.UNDABARENNA, 7.OTEO (12.Monteiro `80), 9.SANTAMARIA, 10.AQUECHE (18.Remiro). Unused: 13.Aguirrezabala, 14.Lubrano, 15.Bengoa, 16.Corral, 17.Rahmani.