By Nick Teale
Arsenal Reserves are set for their final away London derby of the season this evening as they travel to Griffin Park to take on Chelsea.
Victory for the hosts would see them move to within three points of Arsenal. However if Neil Banfield's side walk away winners tonight, they will take a one-point lead over Aston Villa, though the current League leaders would have two games in hand.
Centre back Luke Ayling is likely to retain the captain's armband for the Gunners, while Francis Coquelin could continue in his new role at right back.
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is set to lead the line alongside Luke Freeman. The 17-year-old has scored 13 goals in 15 starts for the Under-18s this season.
Recent loan moves for the likes of Sanchez Watt, Kerrea Gilbert and Mark Randall have presented opportunities for younger players to step into the Reserve team.
Under-18s regular Nico Yennaris made his first appearance for Neil Banfield's side at Stoke last week and defender Ayling was handed the captain's armband following Kyle Bartley's loan move to Sheffield United. Prior to last week's victory, the 18-year-old had only made one Reserve-team appearance this season.
James Shea and Freeman are both in line to start at Griffin Park tonight. Between them they have made 20 starts for Steve Bould's side this season, but just three starts for the Reserves. Sam Byles is also in the squad and could make his first Reserves appearance this evening.
Talking to Arsenal.com ahead of the trip to Chelsea, Banfield explained how he decides which players make the step up from the Academy League team to the Reserves.
"I speak to Steve Bould about who is playing well for him," Banfield explained. "We are always talking. So he might say 'this player has done well, he deserves to be moved up and taste the next level' and we see how he does.
"It's done on performances for Steve, the same as how Arsène Wenger picks who he wants from my team based on performances.
"They know they have lads in front of them who did well last year and they will get their turn. It's just a matter of patience and working on their game ready for next season or whenever the opportunity comes along ready to play in the Reserves.
"The Under-18s can play on a Saturday [in the Academy League] but the likes of Gilles Sunu, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Nacer Barazite all need to be playing.
"They get regular first-team training sessions, they're in and around the first team and they benefit from that.
"They are continuously working on their individual programmes. It doesn’t stop. There's a lot of work to be done individually. We assess them individually and look at what they have to be working on all the time to improve as a player.
"If they are here they're working hard on the things they need to improve to make that next step into the first-team group.
"You can see the progress sometimes but it can be hard to quantify. It might not go down as goals scored but you can see their level of performances improving. In some areas you can just see they are getting a little bit stronger or a little bit quicker, you can see that. Then when they go into the first team you can see how they react in the first-team situation."
Chelsea's squad tonight includes first-team squad players Fabio Borini and Nemanja Matic, while Gael Kakuta is set to start up front.
You can follow the game with live text commentary on Arsenal.com while Arsenal TV Online will bring you bitesize highlights tomorrow morning (UK time) with extended highlights to follow later in the day.15 Feb 2010