Arsenal’s youngsters learnt the hard way this week as they sampled European football with their trip to Greece to take on Olympiacos in the NextGen Series.
Having comfortably dispatched of Marseille at Underhill in their opening game, Terry Burton’s side were looking to prove their credentials by emerging with at least a point from the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, which will also play home to Arsenal’s first-team in the Champions League in December.
The NextGen Series is as close as you could possibly get to replicating Europe’s premier club competition at youth level and, by suffering a 2-0 defeat on Wednesday, a blow which was compounded by the sending off of Hector Bellerin late on, Arsenal’s young talents experienced a feeling that would have been familiar to many of their first-team contemporaries, who have suffered defeats in the same arena over the past few seasons.
The Gunners were lacking the swashbuckling panache that was in abundance against Marseille, with the absences of highly creative midfielders Kristoffer Olsson and Jon Toral keenly felt. Arsenal struggled to generate much rhythm in their play, although, in truth, neither side could really look back on the opening period with much fondness, save for an inventive run from Serge Gnabry, which culminated in the German winger shooting just wide.
Two late goals did for Arsenal, though, even if there was a suspicion of offside about the first. In between the two goals, Bellerin, who had already received a yellow card early on, was dismissed after catching an opponent just outside the Arsenal box. The Spaniard will miss the next group stage game, also against Olympiacos, early next month.
Meanwhile, with the Captial One Cup fixture against Coventry City now less than a fortnight away, a clutch of young professionals will be looking to stake their respective claims for involvement in the first-team setup, with a prime opportunity to showcase their talents being Monday’s U21 Premier League fixture against Norwich City at Underhill.
Arsene Wenger is unlikely to be in attendance given that his side face Montpellier away a day later, but the Frenchman will doubtless receive detailed reports of the performances of those on show. Some players, though, seem almost certain of inclusion against the League One side regardless of whether their form fluctuates over the next fortnight.
Gnabry, having been named on the club’s A-List when the Champions League squad was submitted, is highly likely to receive a run-out, whilst Ignasi Miquel, Conor Henderson, Nico Yennaris and Thomas Eisfeld all seem certainties to make the squad. There could be a few less familiar names on the bench, with first-year scholar Chuba Akpom hoping to edge out Sanchez Watt for inclusion and the promising foreign trio of Bellerin, Toral and Olsson all seeking their first competitive appearances for the senior side.