Arsenal’s trio of teenage Champions League debutants have spoken of their pride at featuring in Istanbul as they helped the Gunners to a comfortable 4-1 win over Galatasaray.
Gedion Zelalem and Ainsley Maitland-Niles each featured for 45 minutes in place of Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey before Stefan O’Connor, a fellow 17-year-old, joined them on the pitch for the final 15 minutes in place of Mathieu Debuchy.
Speaking after the game, Zelalem reflected: “All your life you work for this moment, so to be able to play was very good. You dream of that as a boy – coming on in the Champions League. I was watching it last year and now I’m playing in it, so it’s great.
“Everyone knows that it’s a special competition and everyone wants to win it. Being able to play in it is very good for me and hopefully I can do that in the future.”
The Germany youth international also spoke of his eagerness to learn from Wesley Sneijder having been pitted against the experienced Dutch midfielder in the centre of the park.
“He’s won the Champions League, so to be able to play against him was very good. He’s a top player and hopefully I can win the Champions League as well one day. I can learn from the way he switches the ball, his quick feet and things like that.”
Maitland-Niles was similarly enthusiastic at full-time, perhaps all the more so given his unexpected transformation from Academy striker to first team holding midfielder.
“I’m just really happy and I want to thank my family and God mostly for putting me here, and Arsenal for giving me the chance. About 35 minutes into the game. Somebody told me that I would be coming on. I was a bit nervous at first but it brought a smile to my face. [The boss] just said to mark Wesley Sneijder really tight, so I had to try and get close to him.”
Stefan O’Connor, who progressed through the Academy ranks alongside Maitland Niles, took a moment to thank Per Mertesacker for his guidance during his short cameo.
“He encouraged me a lot,” he told Arsenal Player. “When I made a mistake or if I did something well, he just encouraged me. He’s a good leader and he’s a good guy to have around the team.”
“It’s a dream come true,” he added. “I would never have thought that at 17, I would be making my debut for the first team in the Champions League. Words can’t explain it.”
Arseblog News once harboured hopes of playing for Arsenal, but those dreams died on a freezing night in South London as scouts ignored our deft range of passing in an 8-3 defeat for Slough Town by Millwall. We were 12 and didn’t get picked again.
Not that we’re bitter or anything…not bitter at all.