By Adam Clark
Johan Djourou was the match winner for Arsenal Reserves last night as they edged out Fulham at Motspur Park.
The Swiss international defender headed the only goal of the game with 14 minutes remaining but it was a wonder how there weren't more goals in this enthralling fixture.
Arsenal peppered Fulham's goal throughout yet were also indebted to a fine string of saves from their Estonian goalkeeper Mart Poom.
The venue, Fulham's training ground, proved the perfect setting for a contest that had something of a training match feel about it. That's not to take away from the football; there was a leisurely pace to the play and it was creative and confident, and the result was a compelling end-to-end encounter.
Arsenal's confidence came largely from the presence of first-team defenders Justin Hoyte and Djourou. Add to that the formidable performance of Poom and the assured return of Joe O'Cearuill and the Gunners had a solid platform to support the increasingly impressive midfield pairing of Mark Randall and Fran Merida.
Fulham gave run-outs to first-teamers Claus Jensen and Clint Dempsey, the latter a one-time scorer for the United States in a friendly against England. And it was the American who came closest early on, bringing two fine stops from Poom in quick succession.
Randall and Merida were at the hub of most Arsenal attacks but it was a combination of Vincent van den Berg and Kieran Gibbs which brought the Gunners their first opportunity on 24 minutes. The former challenged keeper Corrin Brooks-Meade to a weak back pass and the loose ball found its way to Gibbs on the edge of the box. With the goalmouth gaping the midfielder somehow sent his shot wide of the post but in his defence he took it quickly on his weaker foot and Fulham had flooded back to man their lines.
Fulham and Dempsey in particular continued to look dangerous and went close again before Djourou headed a Chris James effort off the line. More intricate play led to Merida firing off target and Nacer Barazite lifted a gilt-edged chance over the crossbar. At the other end another James header missed Poom's upright by a hair's breadth.
On the stroke of half time Poom exceeded himself in performing a spectacular triple save. The Estonia No 1 could only palm a Wayne Brown thunderbolt as far as Dempsey before showing razor-sharp reactions to twice deny the American's attempts to convert rebounds.
Poom's persistence so nearly paid further dividends as Arsenal launched a counter attack from which striker Jay Simpson rattled the bar.
It was breathtaking entertainment and the second half continued in much the same vein. Poom produced a theatrical save from Jensen while Merida and Simpson both had Brooks-Meade scrambling.
Banfield's side also set about restraining the Cottagers' threat and closed down their opponents at every opportunity. The result was further opportunities to attack their hosts' back line.
On 75 minutes Simpson fired in a cross which Brooks-Meade could only push back into a crowded six-yard box. Rene Steer reacted instinctively but the defender's header crashed off the underside of the bar. The clearance found its way to Merida and, sensing the keeper off his line, the Spaniard fired a half-volley which required an acrobatic save.
Arsenal got their reward though. From the resulting corner Randall whipped in a corner and it was Djourou, up from the back, who towered above his marker to guide his header low to the keeper's right.
Sensing a first victory in 10 games Arsenal adhered to their game plan commendably. It was fitting of Arsenal's fast, flowing style that they opted for attack as their form of defence. The youngsters had the experienced man Djourou to thank for their goal but in the closing moments it was teenagers Gibbs and Simpson who came closest to adding further strikes.
They may have rode their luck at times but it mattered little. This victory was more than deserved.
Randall's corner comes over...
Djourou rises and heads goalwards
The ball beats Brooks-Meade
Djourou celebrates his goal
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Referee: A Halliday
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