By Declan Taylor

Tuesday night’s encounter with Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium sees Arsenal Reserves reach the halfway point of the 2008/09 campaign and, if recent form is anything to go by, Neil Banfield’s boys could be in for an explosive closing stretch.

The reserves have only lost once since September and currently trail league leaders Aston Villa by five points with a game in hand. However, it was the Villans who dished out Arsenal’s heaviest defeat so far this term, with a 4-1 victory at Underhill on Monday, September 29.

That game capped a disappointing opening month for the Gunners, who book-ended a battling away victory against Portsmouth with home defeats against Chelsea and Villa.

Since then Banfield’s side have gone from strength to strength, and despite being only one point better off than they were at this stage last season, they have scooped nine from the last possible 12, scoring seven goals and conceding only once along the way.

Villa on the other hand are struggling for form after a flying start to the campaign. A four-game winning streak made the Birmingham side the League’s early pace-setters but they have only managed one win in four since then.

Despite the inclusion of their first-team youngster Nathan Delfouneso, it is Villa’s midfield trio of Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton and Zoltan Steiber who have shared most of the goals for the league leaders.

Freddie Sears, who grabbed a four-goal haul for West Ham against West Brom in September, perhaps unsurprisingly tops the scoring charts with five. But Rui Fonte and Mark Randall are both within touching distance of the young Hammer with three goals each.

Jay Simpson, who recently joined West Brom on loan, is the scorer of Arsenal’s only goal on the road so far this term. With five successive away days up next for his side, Banfield will be looking for another member of his strike unit to make his mark away from the comforts of Underhill.

Of course both North London derbies lie in wait for Arsenal in the second half of the campaign after December’s home fixture was postponed. They promise to be typically lively affairs although Tottenham have suffered a stop-start opening six games.

Clive Allen’s side have won just once in their last five games and sit seventh, just two points above bottom-place West Brom.

The two sides cross swords first on Monday, February 9 at Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road before meeting at Barnet for Arsenal’s final fixture on April 6.

There was nothing to choose between the two close rivals last season as the pair played out 0-0 and 1-1 draws. It remains to be seen if either side can claim bragging rights this season.

Before that, Arsenal face Wednesday’s trip to Stoke and another chance to gain more ground on the faltering league leaders.

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 20 Jan 2009