By Matt Fortune
A spirited Arsenal Reserves were beaten 3-2 by a Birmingham outfit boasting nine senior players at Underhill on Monday night. The defeat was the Gunners' first of the season but it was by no means a disheartening performance from Neil Banfield's side.
A Neil Danns hat-trick proved decisive for the visitors and, although Arsenal drew level on the hour mark through Armand Traore, Birmingham's wealth of experience made the difference. Captain Havard Nordtveit grabbed a goal three minutes from time but it proved to be a mere consolation.
It's two weeks since Arsenal brushed Portsmouth aside so comfortably and the long absence seemed to have a negative effect as they struggled to find a foothold early on against the Blues. To Birmingham's credit they presented a far greater threat than the south coast side had done and played the ball around with confidence.
Banfield welcomed back Rhys Murphy and Gavin Hoyte from international duty, naming both players on the bench, as well as the first-team experience of Mark Randall and Armand Traore, both of whom started the game.
It was Arsenal who had the first sight of goal. Left-back Traore broke clear down the flank and fed Kieran Gibbs. Gibbs in turn produced a fine bit of footwork to create space for himself but with the angle getting tighter the 17-year-old could only blast the ball just wide.
The visitors began to assert themselves and it wasn't long before they had chances of their own. On eight minutes Rowan Vine forced himself through the Arsenal backline and bought a smart save from Vito Mannone. It was a warning that Arsenal briefly heeded but they soon trailed.
With 14 minutes gone former Colchester striker Danns rose well at the near post to meet a Daniel de Ridder cross, and glanced the ball beyond the reach of Vito Mannone.
The Blues' main outlet was summer loan signing Wilson Palacios, a player once trialled by Arsene Wenger. The Honduran has joined Birmingham until the end of the year but on this performance he has a strong chance of extending his stay in the Midlands. Picking out passes both long and short, as well as tackling hard, he created several opportunities for the lively front pair of Danns and Vine, and were it not for the brilliance of captain Nordtveit the deficit may well have been greater.
Arsenal's frustration at not being allowed to pass the ball around at will was evident and they remained on the back foot for much of the half.
The second half was a stark contrast to the first. The introduction of Jay Emmanual-Thomas gave Arsenal a powerful outlet and in less than a minute they were unlucky not be level. A swift passing move found its way to Nacer Barazite who muscled half a yard for himself before unleashing a fierce drive that was well saved by Colin Doyle.
Arsenal continued to press and they deservedly drew level on the hour mark. Seemingly going nowhere just inside his own half, the impressive Traore produced a fine piece of skill to evade the attention of two Birmingham midfielders. The young Frenchman raced clear of three more challenges and, after a good exchange of passes with Barazite, he fired home from just inside the box.
However Arsenal's hard work was undone soon after with two goals in three minutes. Vine, signed from Luton Town in January, disguised an exquisite ball through for Danns who finished confidently across the keeper.
On 69 minutes Danns completed his hat-trick in similar style. First-team captain Damien Johnson sent a hopeful ball through the heart of the Arsenal defence. It was pounced on by the former Liverpool schoolboy and he rounded Mannone before rolling the ball into the empty net.
It was cruel on Arsenal, but the attitude the Gunners went on to show would have done much to enhance their flourishing reputation. They continued to press in search of a breakthrough and nearly pulled one back with a spectacular 30-yard drive from Gibbs but his effort whistled just over the bar.
Arsenal finally did get the goal they so richly deserved. With three minutes to go and with Gibbs again at the heart of the move, the home side won a corner. Paul Rodgers found space at the back post and when his powerful header was blocked on the line, Nordtveit was on hand to crash the ball home from six yards out. The goal caps an impressive start to life at Arsenal for the Norwegian after some outstanding defensive performances so far.
Arsenal will look to bounce back when they visit North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in two weeks time.
Arsenal TV Online subscribers can now watch highlights from the game.
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