By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Reserves claimed another Midlands scalp on Monday night as goals from Rui Fonte and Nacer Barazite sealed a 2-1 victory over struggling Derby. Though they didn't make it easy on themselves.
Still, two wins in a week have now propelled Arsenal's second-string to within touching distance of top-spot in Reserve League South. Depending on results elsewhere, they could go into Christmas trailing only on goal-difference.
With last Monday's snatch-and-grab raid on Aston Villa still fresh in the mind, Neil Banfield's team embarked on the farthest trip of the campaign.
The squad was boosted by the inclusion of two full internationals in Philippe Senderos and Lukasz Fabianski, as well as Armand Traore who had featured in Sevilla last week.
Their hosts begun this season's campaign at their usual home of Pride Park but having failed to win there they moved to the Pirelli Stadium, home of Burton Albion. If it was a change of luck they were looking for, it didn't deliver. An 8-0 humbling at the hands of West Ham last week left them short of confidence as well as points.
At the start of play, they sat bottom, four points adrift of the nearest club and with a negative goal difference of 15.
Their side tonight had Miles Addison providing some first-team experience while Lewis Price, keeping goal, had featured for Wales.
Rain had battered this part of the Midlands since early afternoon. Combining that with the already questionable quality of the pitch, playing conditions were tough. And in the early exchanges it showed.
The inclusion of Senderos pushed Paul Rodgers to right-back. His pace and impeccable timing ensured the change of scenery did not equate to a dip in form. Rodgers was impressive tonight, much as he has been all season. The 18-year-old is an unsung hero of this campaign. Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Kolo Toure - he is strong, quick and more than capable with the ball at his feet.
Having said that, it was his usual partner Gavin Hoyte who embarked on a run reminiscent of the Ivorian to provide Arsenal's first real opening. Bounding out of the back with the ball at his feet, he floated an elevated pass to the advancing Kieran Gibbs, and continued his run. He was eventually picked out by Barazite but his downward header was comfortably gathered.
Arsenal were in control for much of the half. Mark Randall twice followed up loose balls on the edge of the box, but the keeper was untroubled.
Price perhaps would have wished he had had similar fortune when Barazite thundered a strike in his direction after 28 minutes.
A minute prior, the Welshman had saved brilliantly from Henri Lansbury at point-blank range but when Arsenal's Dutch striker tested him from distance, he blundered. Punching upwards rather than outwards, Price was forced to back pedal. The ball grazed the crossbar, deceiving him, before Fonte nodded home.
The second came nine minutes later. Senderos was given time and space to clip a back-to-front pass into the path of Barazite. Owing much to a slip from Addison, the 17-year-old raced clear before finishing with aplomb across the stranded goalkeeper. It was his 11th goal in Arsenal colours this season.
Early in the second half Price went someway to atoning for his earlier error, spectacularly saving from Gibbs as Arsenal hemmed their hosts in.
As so often for the Gunners this season, the cultured left foot of Fran Merida dictated play from midfield. He was not alone. Randall supported the Spaniard with a hugely mature performance. The absence of a holding midfielder, James Dunne, forced him slightly deeper than he might prefer - a position though in which he flourished.
Guilty of over-playing once or twice, Arsenal should have led by more. By the hour Gibbs, Lansbury and Merida had all gone close.
Derby then nearly snatched at a lifeline. Anthony Robertson went clear but his finish was wayward.
A way back in to the game was again dangled in front of Robertson with 11 minutes remaining. This time he couldn't miss. Paris Simmons was found with plenty of space to attack and when his shot cannoned back of the post, Robertson bundled it home from all of a yard.
It shot Arsenal back into life. Dunne, who entered the fray midway through the second period, went close.
With the minutes falling away from Derby, it was a surprise that they created so little. Arsenal again lost their urgency but with Fabianski a mere spectator, their attitude mirrored their need.
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