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Pablo Mari made his long-awaited return from injury against Derby County on Friday, as the Arsenal u23s made it three wins in a row.
Arsenal defender Pablo Mari picked up an ankle injury against Manchester City during the first post-lockdown game, requiring surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation schedule. His time out only grew longer after a setback a couple of months ago.
The centre-back finally made his return to the pitch in an u23 game on Friday, starting against Derby County. The away side were looking to go top of the league with a draw or a win, so Arsenal had their work cut out for them.
Mari started in defence alongside William Saliba, with Calum Chambers and Ryan Alebiosu in the full-back positions.
Arsenal took an early lead from the penalty spot, with Ben Cottrell playing a nice through ball to Kido Taylor-Hart, who went down under a heavy challenge. Cottrell stepped up to convert the spot-kick.
Cottrell was captaining the side for the first time and put in an excellent performance, so in hindsight, it was fitting that he took the penalty.
The Gunners then gave away a penalty of their own, with Taylor-Hart at fault this time. However, goalkeeper Arthur Okonkwo kept the kick out with his feet to maintain the lead.
Mari had a good half in general, with a few powerful clearing headers and an unsurprising domination of the individual duels. But his one mistake just before half-time gifted Derby an equaliser.
The away side put a cross in from a deep area, and Mari watched the ball all the way but didn’t jump for it. Whether he’d just decided he couldn’t reach it or thought an Arsenal man was behind him is unclear, but Jordan Brown snuck in to score.
Mari came off at half-time in a planned change. We’ve seen that before plenty of times, players almost always only complete a half on their first game back.
With Mari coming off, Brooke Norton-Cuffy came on in the right-back position, with Chambers shifting to centre-back. Arsenal quickly retook the lead, with Nikolaj Moller finishing a Catalin Cirjan assist.
The home side started to dominate proceedings, and it was no surprise to see them double their lead. In a lovely move started by William Saliba, Miguel Azeez teed up Taylor-Hart to make it 3-1 with a slightly-deflected curling effort.
Arsenal briefly looked under a bit of pressure around the 70th minute, with Okonkwo having to make another good save and Derby hitting the post.
However, as the Gunners threatened to break, Kornell MacDonald scythed him down and earned a second yellow card. With 10 men against 11 and a two-man disadvantage, Derby retreated into their shell and never really threatened to make a comeback after that.
It was a well-deserved win and a fun game to watch for the first 70 minutes. Arsenal have finally found some form creatively, and with the first-teamers helping out in defence, it’s all going pretty well.
Arsenal u23 Lineup vs Derby
Okonkwo; Chambers, Saliba, Mari, Alebiosu; Akinola, Cirjan, Azeez; Taylor-Hart, Moller, Cottrell
Ejeheri, Ogungbo, Norton-Cuffy (for Mari, 45), Dinzeyi, Ideho (for Cirjan, 90+2).