A little under a year ago, Arsenal hosted Marseille at the Emirates Stadium in a Champions League group stage clash. The teams played out a drab 0-0 draw, and one of the few highlights was watching youngsters such as Nicolas Nkoulou show the skills and assurance to confirm that they belong at that level.
Ten months down the line and the two teams met again, this time in the slightly less luxurious surroundings of the Underhill Stadium in Barnet, the venue for the teams’ opening match of this season’s NextGen Series, effectively an under-19 Champions League, with the aim of discovering those who will soon be playing in the full grown-up version. A total of 24 teams are competing, beginning with a group stage comprising six groups of four teams each. Arsenal and Marseille have been grouped with Olympiakos and Athletic Bilbao. France’s other representative is Paris Saint Germain, grouped with Juventus, Manchester City and Fenerbahce.
In last year’s inaugural competition, Marseille faired extremely well, beating Barcelona and Manchester City and defeating Aston Villa after extra time in the quarter final at Villa Park, before losing to eventual winners Inter Milan in the semi final. They came to London, managed this year by Jean-Luc Cassini, with hopes of going one or two stages further and keeping up France’s reputation for strong, competitive youth teams. Interest in the match was clear: not only were Arsene Wenger and assistant Steve Bould in attendance, but Arsenal legends Brian Talbot and Jens Lehmann also appeared and Olivier Giroud may also have been glimpsed. An impressive attendance of almost 900 took advantage of the free entry, creating a warm atmosphere.
The match kicked off with OM playing a defensive formation with five at the back. Despite this, goalkeeper Ibrahima Sy was called into action almost immediately, pulling off an excellent save after Kyle Ebecilio was put through one on one.
The respite was short-lived though, as Chuba Akpom breezed past Jean Baptiste Massimi and captain Ricardo Charles and squared for Gunners captain Nico Yennaris to tap in on 10 minutes.
It was evident that there was quite a gap between the teams, particularly in terms of physique and also speed (both of foot and of thought), as the superb Yennaris and Kristoffer Olsson took control of proceedings. Although the speedy Oumar Diop impressed on the left wing and strong centre forward Achille Anani showed some nice touches up front, including a curling shot which did not miss by too far, les Phocéens struggled to retain possession. Inevitably, Arsenal doubled their lead mid-way through the first half, Akpom capitalising on a Charles slip. OM were being so overrun that at one point Sy came out of his area as a makeshift sweeper to support his defence! Arsenal’s dominance was such that OM resorted to a double substitution after half an hour, in order to attempt to influence matters, to no avail.
The second half was a little more evenly matched, although in truth Arsenal had clearly taken their foot off the gas and several substitutions slowed momentum. Marseille did look brighter however, substitute Michel Araai looking very bright, linking well with Anani and having three reasonable chances, the closest a header from an Anani cross which was deflected wide. Arsenal keeper Stuart Moore did not have a single save to make, however, and it was not a great surprise when Arsenal scored a third not long before the final whistle, Akpom scoring his second, the goal coming – like the first two – through Arsenal’s inside left channel.
So, a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to open the tournament. A really disappointing result?
Not at all, said a smiling Henri Stambouli, head of Marseille’s youth academy, after the match. He said such a result had been expected, with many first choice players out and against an Arsenal team older and more experienced than his Marseille side, something which makes a big difference at such a young age. He sees the purpose of these matches as an ideal opportunity “to save time”, helping players to gain invaluable experience, and giving him and his team the chance to see which players have the potential to make the step up.
And which players does he see as having that potential? “You saw the difference between the first and second half”, he notes. The first half was more of a struggle, with the slightly older generation, led by Anani, who was born in 1994 and is now close to joining the professional squad. The second half, saw the introduction of the younger, 1996 generation, for whom Stambouli clearly has high hopes. Araai is mentioned and Stambouli proudly says that he is already a French international for his age group. He also speaks in glowing terms of the speed and attacking intent of Roukneddine Said Ali, who appeared in the second period and made a positive impression.
What of Ibrahima Sy, Marseille’s eccentric goalkeeper, who appears to have promising delivery but also a dangerous tendency to go walkabout? “He is a big personality, but also with quality and class”. Asked about his fleeting cameo as a sweeper: “it was exactly what was needed – the team was a little lost at that moment and he came out to support them”.
As far as Stambouli is concerned, the NextGen Series is a fantastic competition, of which Marseille is delighted to be a part. Irrespective of result, he pointed to the experience that his young team had had. “Yesterday they trained at Arsenal’s training ground – and they got to meet Arsene Wenger – who by the way warned them that they were in for a tough time!”
Going off-subject slightly and asked about Joey Barton, Stambouli was understandably coy, but said that “in Marseille, we like someone with a bit of a temperament”. As for the prospects for the Marseille first team this season he was, again, very positive. “A strong group is in the process of forming”, he said. He is delighted at the integration of his younger players into the group – players who are pleased to be part of the professional set-up and who do not complain if they are not picked for every match. He noted that sometimes too big a group has a detrimental effect, but the current, smaller group offers “a different dynamic, an interesting dynamic”.
Offered congratulations on his son Benjamin being selected again for the under-21s, he smiled proudly, noting that some foreign teams have begun sniffing around, but that he is part of a “belle generation” at Montpellier and that he does not have permission to go anywhere for now.
He knows that his son is in good hands and, under his leadership, so are the up and coming generation of Marseille’s footballers. As for tonight’s result, as an optimistic Henri Stambouli notes with a grin: “there is always the return match”.
Make sure to follow Jeremy on twitter @JeremySmith98