By Richard Clarke
The Arsenal youngsters are on the march once again in the Carling Cup.
Arsène Wenger's fledgling side have a proud record in this competition and produced another effervescent display to see off Championship leaders West Brom at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
The visitors edged a pacy, action-packed first half-hour but their challenge foundered after ex-Arsenal winger Jerome Thomas was sent off seven minutes before the break for pushing Jack Wilshere.
After that, the home side had the advantage but they needed the introduction of Carlos Vela to make it tell. In the 68th minute, West Brom keeper Dean Kiely palmed out the Mexican's fierce shot to Sanchez Watt, who marked his debut with a simple finish at the far post.
Fifteen minutes from full time, Mark Randall's sumptuous chip came back off the bar and Vela poached a goal from close-range.
Watt and Wojciech Szczesny gave positive first impressions of their abilities. It was also heartening to see Philippe Senderos so assured in his first Arsenal appearance since May 2008.
West Brom were not at full strength themselves but this was still a notable scalp. The draw for the Fourth Round takes place on Saturday lunchtime (UK time) and once again no-one will want to be pitched against Arsenal.
We now fully know what to expect from Wenger's Carling Cup side. It was a mixture of first-team squad members who need a game (Senderos, Mikael Silvestre, Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey), another look at emerging talent (Kerrea Gilbert and Armand Traore) plus a few debutants (Gilles Sunu, Watt, Szczesny and Francis Coquelin).
West Brom came into this tie top of the Championship but, understandably, Roberto Di Matteo made a slew of changes for tonight's game.
Emirates Stadium was not quite at capacity but, as ever, the crowd had all the youth exuberance of the side they were watching. And the first 37 minutes would be a treat.
Senderos nearly made a dream return when, unmarked at the near post, he powered over a header. Two minutes later he did precisely the same thing, only on this occasion, his contact was not as solid and the ball flew past the far post.
But it was clear early on that Arsenal were not going to repeat the 6-0 drubbing of Sheffield United at this stage of the competition 12 months ago.
In fact it would be wonderfully open game until the sending off just before the break.
On the quarter-hour Robert Koren's high, hanging ball was chested back to the edge of the area by Filipe Teixeira and Gonzalo Jara swerved a low shot inches wide.
Arsenal immediately went down the other end and hit the post. Watt flicked the ball towards Wilshere on the right of the area. He returned the ball to the striker, who sent a stumbling shot towards goal. It trickled back off the post and into the arms of the grateful Dean Kiely.
But Arsenal were not dominating and, in fact, Szczesny's goal would come under fire. The Pole saved satisfactorily from Simon Cox and brilliantly from Koren. A corner came from the latter of those efforts, Szczesny missed his punch and Gilbert booted the ball off the line after Cox had bundled it towards goal at the far post. It was becoming stirring end-to-end stuff. More FA Cup Third Round than Carling Cup Third Round.
Wilshere arrowed a shot just past the West Brom upright. In the 33rd minute, Graham Dorrans sent a free-kick over from the left, the ball was bundled out of Szczesny's hands by Leon Barrett and fell loose. Surprisingly, referee Lee Mason did not blow up and Gibbs was somewhat fortunate to see his headed clearance deflect behind.
Until now we had seen little of Thomas. That would change. On 36 minutes he nearly created the opener by storming down the left and Szczesny had to be alert to cut out his inquisitive low cross.
Seconds later he tangled with Wilshere and pushed the Arsenal youngster to the floor just as he was sitting up. If raising your hands is a red card then the decision was obvious.
It was not only sad to see Thomas mark his return to his mother club in this way. But it was sad for the game. The Emirates crowd had been treated to an even, attacking game thus far. You sensed the sending off would change the game.
On the evidence of the first 15 minutes of the second half, it did. Arsenal were territorially on top and West Brom naturally more inhibited. However, on the hour, they proved they could still make chances.
Gianni Zuiverloon curled a cross to the far post but unmarked Cox could only scuff a header over the bar. Arguably the clearest opportunity of the night so far.
After that Wenger made changes. Vela came on for his first game of the season following ankle trouble while Mark Randall slotted into midfield. Sunu and Coquelin made way.
The introduction of the Mexican lifted the crowd and the team alike. It was akin to throwing a fox into a chicken coop.
It took 10 minutes for Vela to make the difference. Ramsey hoisted a pass to him on the edge of the area, he darted inside his marker and unleashed a thunderous shot. Kiely blocked well but the rebound fell to Watt, who slotted home at the far post.
With West Brom down to 10 men and tiring, it was a huge moment. Arsenal started to make hay.
Kiely saved a deflected shot from Ramsey then, 15 minutes from time, Randall would prise open the visitors' defence with a Bergkampesque piece of skill.
The English midfielder produced a gorgeous chip over the stationary Kiely and down off the crossbar. Barnett could have cleared up but instead decided to try and chest the loose ball back to his keeper.
Vela stole in and gleefully converted the second goal from inches out.
Substitute Chris Wood should have put West Brom back in the game with 10 minutes left but he slashed wide when he really should have hit the target.
Gilbert might have added a third in injury time but slid his shot wide.
By that time Arsenal were already putting on their party pieces. They had done their job like experienced professionals.
- Silvestre (C)
- Sunu 59
- Senderos Yellow Card
- Ramsey Yellow Card
- Watt Goal!
- Coquelin 59
- Traore 69
- Randall 59
- Barazite 69
- Vela 59 Goal!
- Olsson (C) 81
- Moore 75
- Thomas Red Card
- Cox 61
- Meite 81
- Mulumbu 61
- Wood 75