Result: Molde 0-3 Arsenal
Competition: Europa League
Date: 26 November 2020
Venue: Aker Stadium
Arsenal: Runarsson, Cedric, Mustafi, Luiz, Maitland-Niles, Willock, Xhaka, Nelson, Pepe, Nketiah, Lacazette.
Subs: Macey, Hein, Bellerin, Tierney, Ceballos, Holding, Smith Rowe, Balogun, Azeez, Cottrell
Arsenal secured qualification to the Europa League knockout stages thanks to a comfortable 3-0 win over Molde in Norway.
Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson did the damage with goals just after the break and 19-year-old Folarin Balogun put a gloss on proceedings late on.
Qualifying with two group games remaining will come as a big relief to Mikel Arteta whose side face nine games in a ridiculously hectic December schedule.
Mikel Arteta included eight Hale End graduates in his 23-man matchday squad. It was an even split between who started – Maitland-Niles, Willock, Nelson and Nketiah – and who bided their time on the bench – Smith Rowe, Balogun, Azeez, Cottrell. As expected, with a three-game domestic ban hanging over him, Nicolas Pepe got a start despite his red card at the weekend. Experience came in the form of Mustafi, Cedric, Luiz, Xhaka and Lacazette.
Both sides had chances in an end-to-end first 45 minutes that Arsenal controlled for large periods. Molde will have been pleased with their performance though, stretching us on the break and generally looking more familiar with the pace of the artificial pitch.
The home side had the best chance of the half. After working an opening behind Cedric, a cross was flashed across the six-yard box where defender Sinyan, up for a corner that had been cleared, lunged for a tap in. While he made decent contact with the ball, he could only direct it back to Runarsson who’d been left stranded. The Icelander did just about enough not to fumble the effort, which was going wide, into his own net.
Set-up with a four at the back and Xhaka and Willock anchoring the midfield, the Gunners did their best to work the flanks whenever possible. On the right, Pepe was full of running and an eagerness to make something happen. Having squandered a half volley attempt on 12 minutes he came close again on 17 with one of his trademark left foot curlers. It went just wide.
On the right, Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who constantly overlapped were also bright. The letter forced a save from keeper Linde inside 2 minutes and the former took up the mantle, testing the Swedish stopped down low at his near post on 13 minutes. Nelson later tried a curler that went wide and also came close to an assist for Nketiah with a fine cross that Sinyan did well to clear.
Despite a few bright moments, we still looked very clunky, especially with Lacazette dropping very deep to join up play only to slow things down. There were a few occasions when the Frenchman needed to play with his head up instead of staring at the ball in a desperate attempt to keep under control. Having starred in our last two Europa League games in the final third, Willock’s deeper position meant he curtailed his usual runs into the box. We certainly missed them.
There was a scare late on when Runarsson fresh air-kicked as he looked to sweep up a long clearance by his opposite number. Luckily Maitland-Niles was on hand to clear up.
After the weekend’s disappointment, Pepe certainly seemed determined to make an impact. Inside four minutes, he again cut onto his left foot and this time cracked the bar from 25-yards.
He wouldn’t have to wait long to finally get his goal. A quick exchange of passes by Maitland-Niles and Lacazette, freed Willock whose cross to the back post was collected by the Ivorian. You knew exactly what he was going to do. He took one touch and this time found the net with a very precise finish. His teammates were quick to congratulate him. (1-0)
The goal signalled a period of total domination by the Gunners. Nketiah thought he’d doubled the lead when he pounced on a spilt Maitland-Niles shot. The flag went up for offside but the reprieve for the home side was only temporary. With our next attack, Willock, this time popping up on the right, played a fantastic cross for Nelson to tap in at the near post. (2-0)
Nketiah’s frustration continued to grow when he missed a sitter of a header and a close-range back flick in quick succession. He did tee up Lacazette very neatly but Linde made a fine stop to deny the Arsenal captain. The Frenchman was replaced by Emile Smith Rowe almost immediately and Nketiah trudged off soon after with Balogun given the final nine minutes.
The striker took less than 30 seconds to grab his first goal for the club. Collecting a Smith Rowe pass he swivelled and finished smartly. An unforgettable moment for the teenager who is currently in talks about extending his contract at the club. (3-0)
After our struggles in the Premier League, it was very positive to see us make light work of tonight’s challenge. Here’s hoping we can carry some of the attacking fluidity into Sunday’s clash with Wolves.