By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Reserves’ recent upturn in results continued with a hard-fought draw against Chelsea at Underhill on Monday night.
Alex Song executed an expert shot from distance to open the scoring in the first half, but Neil Banfield’s team were pegged back when Franco Di Santo slammed home from inside the box on the hour.
In a game bereft of much goalmouth action, the Gunners demonstrated some intelligent and intricate use of the ball, most successfully with their goal. However, misplaced and sometimes over-ambitious passing denied them a winner.
For the second game in succession the second-string was blessed with first-team, and indeed international, experience. Johan Djourou completed 90 minutes in midfield, partnered by Song. It was Song’s first appearance since a knee injury, sustained at the Africa Cup of Nations, blighted his club progress. Justin Hoyte and Armand Traore completed the quartet.
Chelsea named five members of the squad which dispatched Aston Villa in the FA Youth Cup Semi-Final just six days ago. Jeffery Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt started while matchwinner Adam Philip joined Michael Woods and Nana Ofori Twumasi on the bench. Phillip had decided matters when the respective Under-18 sides had met on Good Friday — there was to be no such fairytale ending this evening.
On a bitterly cold night in North London, both sides' early attacking intentions warmed the 900-plus crowd.
Arsenal’s first moment in front of goal came from Rhys Murphy five minutes in. His instinctive shot on the turn was a warning, before Rui Fonte called Stuart Searle into action from just inside the box. However, the Gunners’ encouraging spell served only to ignite Chelsea. Sergio Tejera Rodriguez forced Vito Manonne to back-pedal and nudge the ball smartly over his crossbar.
A scattering of chances for the visitors kept the Arsenal stopper on his toes before the breakthrough arrived midway through the period.
Traore’s pace and direct approach had already caused Chelsea’s back-line to wobble on a couple of occasions. As a collective they seemingly decided that bringing him down was the smartest way to stop him. Five yards away from the angle of the area, the Frenchman was felled allowing James Dunne the chance to centre — at least that is what many of those inside Underhill assumed. Dunne instead picked out Song in glorious isolation 25 yards from goal and, with scalpel-sharp precision, the Cameroonian stroked home into the bottom corner.
They say you are at your most vulnerable just after you score. Banfield’s boys nearly proved that theory within a minute. Daniel Philliskirk capitalised on some less than convincing defending but could not divert the ball over the advancing Manonne.
Chances came and went, most notably for Murphy when he headed wide when well placed. But, as it had been in the reverse fixture, Arsenal led at the break by a goal to nil.
The second half began in sprightly fashion. Both sides’ football was aesthetically pleasing but lacked sufficient cutting edge to eek out any chances of note. All that was to change with Chelsea’s equaliser on the hour.
Di Santo pounced on a loose ball on the half-turn and showed terrific pace as he surged into an empty final third. His speed earned him the luxury of time on the ball, and the pure ferocity of his shot gave Manonne no chance.
Back on level terms, the Blues asserted a sustained spell of pressure on Arsenal. The Gunners certainly didn’t help their cause with some wayward passing but, like their hosts, Chelsea failed to test the opposing keeper in the latter stages. A draw looked inevitable and was probably a fair result.