By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Reserves are on the up.
Neil Banfield's youngsters eased to victory at Portsmouth thanks to goals in either half by Rhys Murphy and Nacer Barazite.
The young charges have had a stop-start 2008 and been unable to find any rhythm thanks to a sporadic fixture list. Wednesday night's match at Westleigh Park, home of Havant and Waterlooville, was the first of six they will play at this level before the end of April. An encouraging performance, if not result, would be an ideal way start. They delivered both with aplomb.
Banfield rung the changes after last month's draw at Reading. Back into the side came Rene Steer, James Dunne, Gavin Hoyte and Murphy. The latter was making his first start of an injury-hit campaign, and what a comeback it was. A goal was just reward for the England Under-17 striker's tireless work.
For the visitors, one-time England goalscorer David Nugent made a first appearance since January. He, Sean Davis and goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown sprinkled experience over what was a largely youthful side.
The imposing frame of Djourou in an unfamiliar central midfield role worked well for the Gunners. His direct opponent in the midfield, Davis, had a quiet evening until his withdrawal on the hour.
The early exchanges reeked of two sets of players that had not competed together for some time. Passes went awry and confusion over the position of team-mates was all to prominent.
It took 20 minutes for the game to get going but even then goalmouth action was at a premium.
From a long punt forward, Nugent drilled a venomous half-volley wide as a 'route one' approach became an overlying feature of the host's play. Rather than invigorate Portsmouth it did only to tempt the Gunners out of their shell.
Quality was on the horizon and although Rui Fonte's strike never reached the goalkeeper, the movement beforehand was class. Djourou danced his way into the final third and after neat interchange with Murphy, Fonte had a sight of goal from just inside the box. However by the time he shaped to shoot, Portsmouth had got bodies in the way.
More neat build-up had Ashdown scrambling down to an angled drive by Murphy. Arsenal were in the ascendancy and it soon paid off.
Fonte had served warning of his threat from distance earlier in the half, an effort Ashdown comfortably dealt with. However, four minutes short of the interval Portsmouth's stopper was not so convincing. He palmed the ball away from his body but not of his six-yard box. It invited Murphy to complete the simplest of tasks from five yards out.
Advantage obtained, Banfield's side continued to press but had to be content with a one-goal cushion at the break.
A far more sprightly opening to the second-period saw half chances for both sides, although neither 'keeper was forced into action.
For the visitors Barazite met a low Abu Ogogo cross and then caused panic in the Portsmouth backline with a surging run into the heart of the final-third. The Dutchman had taken a while to adapt to life wide-left but embraced the task professionally as the game wore on.
Fonte's last contribution before being substituted was another pile-driver from distance. Ashdown paid it his full attention and was probably thankful to hear the ball crash against the advertising hoardings wide of his right-hand post.
Ogogo had acted as chief tormentor to Andre Blackman and a foul, be it inside or outside of the box, had seemed inevitable for most of the evening. Sure enough with 10 minutes remaining the latter felled the former handing Barazite the chance from the penalty spot.
Nugent tried to respond quickly but drilled harmlessly wide when well placed. The former Preston North End striker had had a disappointing evening - something that cannot be said for any of those in Arsenal colours.
- Djourou 80
- Murphy 75
- Fonte 70
- Evina 75
- Eastmond 80
- Emmanuel-Thomas 70