By Rob Kelly at London Colney
Wojciech Szczesny played the full 90 minutes as Arsenal Under-21s lost 2-1 to West Ham at London Colney on Friday afternoon.
The Poland international had not featured since injuring his ankle in the 6-1 victory against Southampton on September 15.
But he came through this game unscathed, and could come into contention now for the first-team clash with Fulham at Emirates Stadium tomorrow.
Szczesny could do little about either goal in truth, and was relatively untroubled in a tightly-contested game of few chances.
Rob Hall scored the opener for West Ham right after half time, before Serge Gnabry pulled the hosts level in the 76th minute with a well-taken goal.
But with four minutes to go, Paul McCallum headed home from close range to give the visitors victory in this top-of-the-table clash.
It was a disappointing end, but Szczesny’s involvement was a real positive for Arsène Wenger as his side head into a crucial run of fixtures.
The big team news of the day was Szczesny’s return from injury, although there was also a rare outing for Sebastien Squillaci at the heart of the defence at London Colney.
Terry Burton made two further changes from the side that won 2-1 at Bolton on Monday, with Ignasi Miquel coming in for Jernade Meade and Gnabry back in under-21 action again.
West Ham, meanwhile, included nine of the team that beat the Gunners 4-1 in late September, while there was only a place on the bench for France international striker Frederic Piquionne.
Arsenal’s form since that defeat at Rush Green has improved markedly, and after three wins in their last four games they came into this encounter with the league leaders in high spirits.
Aside from an early scare when Hall’s free kick from the right byline clipped the post, Szczesny was barely tested in a tight first half.
The two sides were well matched, and as such chances were few and far between - although the best were created by Arsenal.
The first one came in the 14th minute as Kristoffer Olsson sent in a deep cross from the right, Gnabry cushioned a header down across goal and Chuba Akpom volleyed over acrobatically.
Six minutes later, the busy Thomas Eisfeld sent Gnabry through, and the German forward rounded Raphael Spiegel in the West Ham goal but was forced out to the left of the area. Gnabry kept his composure and picked out Olsson in the middle with his cross, but the resulting header drifted harmlessly wide.
Akpom then tested Spiegel with a diving header, before Gnabry hit the post with a left-footed drive right on the stroke of half time. There was still time left though for McCallum to call Szczesny into action with a firm header that the Polish keeper held low down.
Burton’s side made a disappointing start to the second half, though, as Hall fired West Ham ahead almost straight from kick off. But Arsenal’s response was good and they came back strongly.
On the hour mark Nico Yennaris and Martin Angha combined well to create a chance for Akpom, but the ball was stolen off his feet by Fraser Shaw as he shaped to shoot. Then Miquel fired across the face of goal and Eisfeld brought a flying save out of Spiegel from 25 yards.
An Arsenal goal seemed inevitable and in the 76th minute they got it as Eisfeld fed Gnabry on the edge of the area. He dragged the ball away from the defenders and slotted it into the bottom-left corner.
But there was a further twist to the game with just four minutes remaining as McCallum headed home from close range to give West Ham the points and consign the Gunners to an undeserved defeat.
- Hayden 86
- Yennaris 73
- Gnabry Goal!
- Meade 73
- Bellerin 86
West Ham U21
- McCallum Goal!
- Hall Goal!