By Mo Khan
Arsenal remain top of the Reserve League South following a workmanlike 2-1 win at Watford on Monday night.
Midfielder Jay Simpson - who turned 17 last Thursday - opened the scoring on the quarter-hour mark with a well-taken finish from the edge of the box. The tricky winger also scored in the Under-18s' win over Charlton on Saturday, making it quite a week for the Londoner.
Simpson then notched his second of the evening with three minutes remaining before Toumani Diagouraga's immediate reply for the home side set up a tense finale.
On a bitterly cold evening at Vicarage Road, Neil Banfield's Arsenal side enjoyed the bulk of possession and may have emerged victorious by a greater margin but for the excellence of Watford's experienced goalkeeper, Alec Chamberlain.
Banfield made five changes to his starting XI from the 2-2 draw with Southampton last month.
In came Mark Howard for Manuel Almunia in goal and, with Matthew Connolly not involved, Johan Djourou and Fabrice Muamba formed the central defensive partnership.
Anthony Stokes returned for an impressive performance in central midfield alongside Patrick Cregg and Shane Tracy was drafted in on the left flank. Sebastian Larsson was not in the squad and Marc Elston took his place on the bench.
And following his first-team debut at left-back against Reading in the Carling Cup last week, Kerrea Gilbert played the same role for the reserves as Rene Steer dropped to the bench.
The surface at Vicarage Road hardly made for the flowing passing game usually associated with Banfield's young side so it was to their credit that they refused to abandon their footballing philosophy and persevered, playing eye-catching football on a far from eye-catching pitch.
In a scrappy opening, Arturo Lupoli had a goal disallowed for offside following fine work by Stokes.
Watford threatened themselves shortly afterwards through Francino Francis, but as the tall striker thought he was in on goal, Howard came rushing from his line to smother the danger. It was a prelude for a similar stop in the second-half by the Arsenal goalkeeper as he put in a superb performance. The Enfield-born stopper looked composed and dominant in the air all evening and was at one stage applauded individually by Banfield after he claimed a difficult corner with ease.
Arsenal took the lead with just 15 minutes played. Stokes found Bendtner on the left of the Watford penalty area and when the tall forward slipped the ball forward it seemed Lupoli and Simpson would get in each other's way. Instead, Simpson took command and dispatched a right-foot finish firmly past Chamberlain.
Simpson was now clearly full of confidence and Watford's defence had no answer to his pace and quick feet on the right of midfield. After 18 minutes, Simpson beat two Watford defenders before crossing for Bendtner, but the Dane could not get a shot away quick enough and the danger was snuffed out by the home side.
Simpson was also the architect of Arsenal's next foray forward of note, dispossessing his marker on the right before bursting into the box. When he squared it for Lupoli it looked for all the world that it would be 2-0 but the Italian's first-time right-foot shot was palmed away by Chamberlain. The loose ball fell to Stokes who in turn found Cregg on the edge of the box and his fizzing shot flew marginally wide of the left-hand post.
The second half followed a similar pattern with Arsenal dominating possession while Watford looked intermittently dangerous.
Howard in the visitors' goal was immaculate as Watford applied some sustained pressure midway through the second period but Arsenal looked as though they could score at any moment.
With 69 minutes played, Stokes played the pass of the game with a 50-yard ball over the top of the Watford rearguard and into the path of Bendtner. As the former Copenhagen youngster strode purposefully forward into the penalty area, he was crowded out and the Hornets survived. The same two combined again with six minutes remaining but this time Bendtner's first touch was a little heavy and Chamberlain came hurtling off his line to gather at the striker's feet.
But with just four minutes left on the clock, it seemed Watford would grab an unlikely equaliser. Substitute Kyle Matthews found himself with time, space and just the goalkeeper to beat in the Arsenal penalty area. But Howard pulled off a stunning block save.
Arsenal raced to the other end of the pitch and Cregg slipped in Simpson who cut in onto his left foot before coolly lifting the ball past Chamberlain.
Game over - or so it seemed. Seconds later, Watford attacked from the restart, the ball broke for Diagouraga on the edge of the box and the lanky midfielder found the top-right corner of Howard's goal with a sublime finish.
Cue a Watford mini-onslaught, but it was too little too late for the home side and Arsenal hung on to go four points clear at the top of table.
- Cregg Yellow Card
- Simpson Goal! Goal!
- Lupoli 58
- Tracy 74
- Steer 74
- Elston 58