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Afobe the hero as Arsenal win Premier Academy League title

youth league winBy Jonny Payne.

A hat-trick from Benik Afobe and two goals from Luke Freeman gave Arsenal their second successive Academy League title in an eight-goal thriller with Nottingham Forest at the Emirates on Tuesday. Despite dominating possession for large spells of the game, the hosts didn’t have it all their own way as Nottingham Forest scored first and then came from behind to level the score at 2-2, but Arsenal’s quality on the ball and superior finishing paid made the difference.

Forest took a shock lead when Danny Elliot tapped in at the far post with only five minutes on the clock. Arsenal gradually took control of the game though, and two goals from Afobe put the Gunners in front by the interval. The East Midlands side did not give up, though, and equalised early in the second half when George Thomson finished clinically after good work by Tom Mullen on the right. Arsenal soon retook the lead, however, when Afobe scored his hat-trick from the penalty spot after being brought down in the area. The striker then won his second penalty of the game with Freeman putting the Gunners two goals ahead.

Forest again hit back, though when Mullen got the goal his performance deserved, but the Gunners made the game safe when Afobe turned provider for Freeman to tap in his second. Forest overcame Leicester on penalties after a 1-1 draw to reach the final after winning Group D, while Arsenal beat Manchester United also on penalties after a the same scoreline, thanks to an Oguzhan Ozyakup’s goal with his first touch.

Youth team manager, Steve Bould, handed a start to the goal-hero Ozyakup in midfield alongside Ireland under-19 international Conor Henderson and the all-action Emmanuel Frimpong. Bould fielded a lethal-looking front-three of Benik Afobe, Luke Freeman and Chuks Aneke who have scored over 30 goals between them this season. Nico Yennaris captained the side from right-back.

There was also a lot of talent on the bench with last year’s captain Jay-Emmanuel Thomas and commanding centre-back Kyle Bartley returning from their loans in the Championship to sit alongside Roarie Deacon who has caused problems for visiting defences for much of the season.

It was a nervy start by Arsenal with a few misplaced passes in key areas giving possession to Forest. Within five minutes Forest attacker Tom Mullen raced down the left and somehow ran through the challenge of Daniel Boateng but only find the outside of the post, Arsenal ‘keeper James Shea looked to have had it covered though.

But the visitors didn’t have to wait too long for the opener as Thomson was given space to cross form the right, and found Elliot unmarked in the box for a simple tap-in. The East Midlands side were looking dangerous on the counter-attack, particularly with the hard-working Mullen leading the line, and they had another chance soon afterwards. A misplaced pass by Henderson let the visitors in again, as Yennaris missed a tackle on Sykes, but Miquel cut out the dangerous cross from the lively winger.

But there were soon encouraging signs that Arsenal were starting to find their rhythm. As Forest dropped deeper, space opened up in midfield for the likes of Henderson and Ozyakup to exploit and a spell of sustained possession culminated in the equaliser with just over half an hour gone. A raking ball by Daniel Boateng from defence sent Afobe through, he raced into the box and hit a fierce shot at Forest goalkeeper Zannettos Mytides who produced a good save, but the rebound fell to Freeman, he failed to control, but it broke to Afobe who shot high into the net.

You could sense the pressure was beginning to pay-off and after Aneke had headed over and Ozyakup had shot wide when well placed, the young Gunners and Afobe had scored their second. The forward ran onto a through ball by Aneke, outpaced the defenders and hit a clinical finish into the bottom right corner past the onrushing keeper.

Arsenal had grown in confidence as the half progressed and were well worth their half-time lead. After the break, the Gunners looked to pick up where they left off and they could have added a third when Freeman tried his luck from inside the box, but Mytidis stood firm to push the ball away for a corner.

But just as Arsenal were looking firmly in control of the match, Mullen who had caused problems throughout the first half, outpaced Emmanuel Frimpong before cutting it back to Thomson who finished coolly into the bottom left corner from ten yards. The goal came against the run of play but Forest had used the counter attack as a potent weapon in the first half and it had worked once more.

Arsenal soon restored their lead, however, in what was quickly becoming a pulsating game. The visitors were struggling to control the pace and power of Afobe, and in the 65th minute the forward was brought down by Sykes in the area. The referee pointed to the spot and the striker kept his cool to score his third of the match.

After Freeman had another shot saved by Mytidis, Afobe was again fouled in the area in the 72nd minute, by a wild challenge from Karlton Watson. This time Freeman took responsibility and hit an effort low past the ‘keepers left. But the Gunners were not safe just yet. A minute later, substitute Stuart McCashin was allowed space on the left, and after Shea had blocked, it fell to Mulllen who made no mistake from 10 yards. It was now 4-3.

Arsenal almost restored their two-goal advantage straight away as an Ozyakup’s free-kick was met by Ignasi Miquel at the far post. Mytides got a touch to the looping header but it was heading into the net until it was cleared off the line with an acrobatic clearance. As soon as it could have been 5-3 it was so almost 4-4. At the other end, Elliot somehow found acres of space on the edge of the box, he could have taken it on but opted to shoot, and luckily for Arsenal he put it agonisingly wide.

That was the turning point, as the men in red and white made the game safe minutes later. A flicked header by Aneke set Afobe away and the England under-16 striker, who could have added to his three goals, instead unselfishly squared the ball for the unmarked Freeman who tapped in from five yards.

This time Arsenal held onto their lead and claimed their second successive Academy League crown – maybe the first team squad can take some much-needed lessons from their younger counterparts.

Arsenal Under-18 Team: Shea 7, Yeannaris 7, Boateng 6, Miquel 8, Evina 7, Frimpong 8, Henderson 7, Ozyakup 7, Aneke 7, Freeman 8, Afobe 9

Subs: McDermott, Bartley, Emmanuel-Thomas, Meade, Deacon.

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