The Arsenal u23s returned to the top of the Premier League 2 table with another dramatic late goal from Folarin Balogun on Monday night.
With West Ham United’s u23s coming out on top against Manchester City over the weekend, Arsenal had temporarily dropped to second in the Premier League 2 table ahead of their game.
A win would send them back to the top, one point clear of West Ham and five ahead of third-placed City, but any other result would keep them in second.
The team had a few players back from injury, with Omar Rekik and Mazeed Ogungbo returning to the defence and Charlie Patino rejoining the midfield.
They also had all the players returning from international duty available again, like Folarin Balogun, Mika Biereth, and Omari Hutchinson. But they’re becoming a bit threadbare in goal, with Arthur Okonkwo and Karl Hein both out. Ovie Ejeheri filled in.
Arsenal dominated the first half and scored a couple of goals, but they easily could have had even more.
Mika Biereth initially opened the scoring in the 33rd minute, spinning on the ball to fire a low shot into the corner after a cutback from Joel Lopez.
Folarin Balogun and Omari Hutchinson deserve credit for their roles in the build-up as well, playing some clever passes.
It could have been 2-0 when Balogun created another great chance for Biereth, who rounded the goalkeeper but found his shot blocked on the line from a tight angle.
Hutchinson eventually got Arsenal’s second goal just before half-time, in impressive fashion.
Omar Rekik made one of his trademark runs forwards and played the ball inside to Hutchinson around the halfway line. Hutchinson carried it up the pitch until he was around 24 yards from goal, then unleased a left-footed strike into the near-post top corner.
The goal put Arsenal in a commanding position after a comfortable first half, but there was plenty more drama to come.
As a Blackburn player tried to flick the ball past Brooke Norton-Cuffy in the 53rd minute, the Arsenal man instinctively moved his arm out to stop it. The referee judged he’d denied a clear goalscoring opportunity and sent him off.
Suddenly, the game turned. Within five minutes, Rovers had pulled one back, with Sam Burns heading in a cross off the post. It may go down as an own goal, as Ovie Ejeheri palmed it in as he scrambled to keep it out.
The hosts kept pushing, and they won a penalty when substitute Zach Awe committed a foul in the 72 minute, which Connor McBride converted.
Arsenal had really been the architects of their own downfall, with a red card, a possible own goal, and a penalty to concede a very comfortable lead.
But they kept pushing for a late goal, led largely by Balogun and Joel Lopez refusing to give up, and some great saves from Ejeheri in goal to keep things level.
With just over a minute left to play, Lopez closed down a clearance in the right-back position, before putting in a cross that Rovers cleared away for a corner.
Salah-Eddine Oulad M’hand put the corner in for Balogun, whose touch forced him away from goal. Yet he managed to spin on the ball and send it into the far corner for 3-2.
Down to 10 men
✊ Defending as a unit
Looking for a late winner
— Arsenal Academy (@ArsenalAcademy) November 23, 2021
There was still time for more action, and Blackburn missed a great chance to equalise as Ejeheri made another save.
The final action of the match was a straight red card for Blackburn, as their frustration spilt over and Dan Pike kicked out at Balogun – who was holding the ball up in the corner.
It finished 10 vs 10, and 3-2 to Arsenal, who return to the top of the table.
The simple fact is that this match should not have been close. Arsenal were so good before the red card that few would have believed you if you’d said they’d need an 89th-minute winner against the run of play.
Everything before that was very encouraging, but it was a little worrying to see them fall apart in that 15-minute second-half period.
Thankfully, they showed great character towards the end of the match once again.
After the injury-time three-goal comeback against Leicester was capped with a Balogun equaliser, this game was topped off with a winner for the star striker.
Arsenal’s attacking players continue to impress. Along with Balogun, who is on a five-game run of goals for the academy, Hutchinson’s strike made it four goal contributions in two games since his return from injury.
Summer signing Biereth is quietly racking up the numbers as well. He now has seven goals and four assists, 11 goal contributions in his 15 appearances.
With 11 Arsenal players on the pitch, those three should score and assist plenty more this season.
Arsenal u23 lineup vs Blackburn Rovers
Ejeheri, Alebiosu, Norton-Cuffy, Rekik, Ogungbo, Lopez, S. Oulad M’hand, Patino, Hutchinson, Biereth, Balogun
Akinola (for Hutchinson, 72), Awe (for Patino, 62), Hillson, Olayinka (for Oulad M’hand, 93), Taylor-Hart
Arsenal don’t have to wait long for their next game, as they host Derby County on Friday at 19:00 GMT. The game is at Meadow Park.
West Ham will play Blackburn at the same time, so Arsenal will likely need another win to remain top of the league.