By Matt Fortune
A long-range net-buster from James Dunne failed to prevent Arsenal Reserves falling to a second successive defeat on Monday night.
Faced with a Birmingham team of far greater experience, the Gunners battled gamely but were undone by a strike 13 minutes from time by Daniel De Ridder. Mikael Forssell had given the hosts a 51st-minute lead before Dunne's wonderful strike five minutes later hauled Arsenal back into the game.
The game ended in sour fashion for Neil Banfield's team as Gavin Hoyte was given his marching orders for an apparent rash tackle in the closing minutes.
The Arsenal manager was able to name summer signing Havard Nordtveit in his starting XI for the first time since mid-September. The Norwegian defender last began a match when these two sides met at Underhill, scoring in the 3-2 defeat. Another acquisition in the close season who has been dogged by injury, Gilles Sunu, was handed his first Reserve team start.
Chelsea's visit to St Andrews on Saturday, coupled with question marks over the weather, led to a pitch inspection in the afternoon. It passed, but the conditions were far from ideal.
Experienced players have very much been par for the course in Birmingham's second string this season and tonight was no different. Finnish international Forssell was the pick of the names, but Gary McSheffrey and De Ridder, plus Colin Doyle between the sticks, added a solid first-team edge.
A drab first-half was sprinkled only by a collection of half-chances. It was Arsenal who eeked out most of them. Coming closest in a tetchy opening few minutes, Sanchez Watt, deployed out wide to accommodate Sunu, cut in to good effect and drew a smart stop from Doyle - it was to be the unconvincing stopper's most valuable contribution.
Horribly miscuing a clearance moments later, the Blues keeper played the ball straight to Rui Fonte. But such was his surprise at finding the ball at his feet the Portuguese star hesitated and the chance went.
Chasing a hopeful punt forward 15 minutes later, the 17-year-old again went close. Under pressure from Doyle, he leapt bravely towards the bouncing ball. Fonte got there first only for the ball to bounce the wrong side of the frame. It was his last contribution as a stray fist from the keeper gave the striker a badly bloodied nose. His replacement, Cedric Evina, a pint-sized attacker who has created quite a storm in the Academy this season, was making his Reserve team bow.
At the other end, the wide play of De Ridder and McSheffery was threatening to unhinge a defiant Arsenal back line although it took all of 40 minutes for Mannone to be forced into a save. Running menacingly into the heart of the Arsenal defence, De Ridder combined well with Forssell just inside the box. The Finn set up De Ridder expertly but the winger drilled the ball straight at Mannone.
A goal finally lifted the atmosphere six minutes into the second half but it was a far from memorable strike. McSheffrey bounded into the Arsenal box and, with defenders diving at his feet, the ball cannoned up for Forssell to crash home unopposed.
What followed splashed colour across the so far grey evening. First David Howland unleashed a fierce volley from all of 25 yards which crashed back off Manonne's left upright. It was a warning shot well heeded by the Gunners.
Dunne had emerged after the break with renewed vigour and, after a few spicy challenges, made his most telling contribution. The midfielder is not best known for his shooting but goalkeepers will be more wary of him after tonight. Dunne was given the freedom of the Blues' final third and duly smashed the equaliser inside the angle between the right post and crossbar.
The goal merely invigorated the hosts. De Ridder, a menace throughout, wasted a hat-trick of glorious opportunities when played in by Forssell. However, he wasn't to be denied for long.
With a quarter of an hour remaining, the Dutchman was afforded the same space as Dunne had been for Arsenal's equaliser and the consequences were the same. The Blues' summer signing drilled a daisy-cutter across a scrambling Manonne and just inside the post.
Down, but not yet out, Arsenal continued to probe but to little effect. Sunu and Evina's nascent partnership bore promise rather than fruit. The visitors' plight was worsened by the late dismissal of Hoyte as a frustrating night for Arsenal came to a fractious end.
This game was broadcast live on the Arsenal TV channel - Sky 423. Video highlights will be available on Arsenal TV Online from Tuesday morning.
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