Pépé starts payback and Balogun off mark in Arsenal’s breeze past Molde | Europa League

Sunday’s disgrace is Thursday’s saving of face. At Elland Road, Nicolas Pépé had cracked under the pressure of a rare Premier League start and incurred his manager’s wrath with an idiotic red card. In Molde he was given an immediate chance to confirm he had learned his lesson and, knowing he would be under the harshest of spotlights, this time mastered the occasion perfectly.

Pépé’s natural talent has never been in much doubt but there have been plenty of question marks surrounding his ability to plug into Mikel Arteta’s demands. The manager’s most recent request, delivered on the eve of this game, was that the Ivorian takes control of his destiny at Arsenal. He could hardly have received a more satisfying response given Pépé, who looked determined all night, scored a well-taken opener early in the second half and paved the way for the early qualification from Group B that Arsenal had craved.

Any regrets could, this time, afford to be indulgent ones. Moments before his goal, Pépé had left the crossbar reverberating with a vicious 25-yard strike after Arsenal had manoeuvred the ball all the way from their own goalline. It would have been one for the picturebook but, in character with a clear-headed personal display, Pépé refused to wallow and went one better immediately. Molde had not fully cleared their lines from the earlier let-off when Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ delivery just evaded the straining Stian Rode Gregersen and reached Pépé, whose immaculate first touch set him up for a whipped finish into the far corner and a place back in Arteta’s good books.

“I am really pleased,” Arteta said. “After something negative you want to see a reaction and to stand out really quickly. I could see from the first minute from his body language that he was really bright; I really liked it.”

Arsenal had never maintained a consistent tempo in the first half despite flickerings from Pépé and Reiss Nelson, who performed well on the left wing and almost scored early on. Once Pépé had lightened their burden they turned the screw. Nelson has his own points to prove, opting against a summer loan move in order to do so in front of Arteta’s nose, and showed a poacher’s instinct in the 55th minute when making a clever, aggressive run to meet Joe Willock’s cross and jab it past Andreas Linde.

Reiss Nelson caps an impressive display with a goal. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

“He’s made some big steps in the last month or so,” Arteta said of Nelson. “He’s shown what he can do. He’s very vertical, a great player who runs in behind, and he’s very unpredictable.” The latter quality is one that Arteta has regarded with caution in the Premier League but here, as spaces opened up against a watchable but loose Molde side, Arsenal contested the second period with rare freedom.

Eddie Nketiah should have quickly added a third and Alexandre Lacazette, who started in the No 10 position, forced Linde to save well. With eight minutes left Folarin Balogun, widely regarded as a prodigy but yet to commit his future to Arsenal, replaced Nketiah and almost immediately spun neatly in the box before wrapping things up. “He wants to stay, we want him to stay,” Arteta said, and Balogun may be due his first start when Rapid Vienna visit next week given the lowered stakes for that fixture.

It amounted to a fine evening’s work on Molde’s artificial surface, although Arsenal survived the obligatory early scare. Sheriff Sinyan had scored an own goal when the sides met in London and had the perfect chance to make amends when, in the 15th minute, Eirik Hestad’s drilled cross found him sliding in front of an empty net. But Sinyan somehow diverted it away from the target, taking a hefty whack from the post for his troubles, and the visitors avoided punishment for their lack of intensity.

Then Pépé stepped it up and brought everyone else with him. “Today is the example,” Arteta said. “That is the level he needs to hit and from there he needs to keep improving, because he is capable of doing it.”


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