By Matt Fortune
A topsy-turvy evening at Underhill eventually ended with Arsenal Reserves suffering a 3-2 defeat at the hands of London rivals Chelsea.
It wasn't quite a tale of two halves, more a case of strong start and even stronger finish sandwiching a sustained spell under pressure for Neil Banfield's boys. It was that mid-match dip that ultimately cost them the points.
Mark Randall put the Gunners in front early on, but that lead was cut just before the break by Sergio Tejera Rodriguez.
And by the 70th minute Arsenal found themselves two goals behind as substitute Michael Woods and then Scott Sinclair punished some lacklustre defending. Rui Fonte's stunning free-kick 12 minutes from time proved to be scant consolation.
A fresh season brought just one fresh face in Banfield's first starting line-up, Francis Coquelin. The 17-year old Frenchman impressed in a few first-team appearances during pre-season and was the only player on show tonight not to have previously played under Banfield.
Wojciech Szczesny was making his first appearance as the No 1 at this level. But the pair charged with arguably the hardest task of the evening sat just in front. Kyle Bartley and Gavin Hoyte - the newly appointed captain - where going to have their hands full with Chelsea's No 9.
And the visitors' centre forward needed no introduction. Didier Drogba has been a thorn in Arsenal's side since his arrival at Stamford Bridge from Olympique Marseilles four years ago. The Ivorian's last competitive appearance resulted in a red card - in last season's Champions League final. As for the rest, only four had played for the Blues in the goalless draw at Underhill back in February.
Chelsea started the brighter but only had a clutch of corners to show for their effort. Simpson fired the first shot in anger on 10 minutes before Merida drew a full-length save from Rhys Taylor. The breakthrough followed shortly after.
Randall's finish to a six-yard scrap was brilliant. After a neat give and go with Coquelin, the Englishman had at least five blue shirts descend on him eight yards from goal. With a soft-shoe shuffle he escaped with the ball and dinked it over the advancing Taylor. It was a touch of class.
Further warning shots followed. Fonte thumped the post from distance and Jack Wilshere scooped over after a thrusting five-man move. Merida, too, went close with a long-range effort, but in between Hoyte was required to make a last-ditch tackle to stop a dangerous Chelsea break.
Hoyte again came to the rescue midway through the half, cutting out Sinclair's teasing cross, and Abu Ogogo thwarted the Chelsea man seconds later when well placed on the line. Sinclair wasn't enjoying the best of spells. His mazy run deserved better than the scuffed finish off Szczesny on the half-hour.
The balance of power was shifting and Arsenal were starting to sit a little deeper. It wasn't helping their cause. Sinclair fired over from Drogba's clever release.
Now the £25 million man was starting to make his presence known and soon made his most telling contribution. Powering towards the byline Drogba muscled past one challenge, bided his time and fizzed an inch-perfect cross low to the back post. Rodriguez couldn't miss.
Arsenal's woes continued early in the second-half and they were lucky not to trail when an unmarked Miroslav Stoch curled an effort wide from inside the box. It was, briefly, a well-heeded wake-up call. Randall had a deflected free-kick rebound off the crossbar and Hoyte's follow-up was smothered by Taylor at the near post.
However the visitors weren't on the back foot for long. With 64 minutes gone substitute Fabio Paim flung a glorious cross-field pass behind a retreating Arsenal rearguard and into the path of Stoch who in turn rolled in Woods to apply a simple finish by the penalty spot.
The third wasn't long in coming. Six minutes later the lively Patrick van Aanholt was on hand to pounce on a loose pass in midfield and when his surge forward was only half-cleared, the writing was on the wall, Sinclair eventually finishing from 12 yards out.
Stoch hit the post with a free-kick as Chelsea looked to press home their advantage. But Arsenal hadn't given up the ghost.
Carl Magnay was fortunate to stay on the pitch when, as last defender, he chopped down Simpson just outside the box. Rui Fonte dished out suitable justice with an emphatic free-kick. The hosts were back in it.
Simpson's low cross only needed a touch, and Wilshere's audacious chip drew the best from Taylor. Bartley was next, but he prodded over from a corner.
Arsenal continued to look the team most likely but the pressure came to nothing.
- Coquelin 60
- Randall 80 Goal!
- Fonte Goal!
- Murphy 80
- Dunne 60
- Sinclair Goal!
- Rodriguez 58 Goal!
- Drogba 58
- Stoch 86
- Woods 58 Goal!
- Fernandes 86
- Paim 58