By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Reserves had a sour return to Underhill on Monday night as they were undone but a well organised, effective Fulham outfit.
Neil Banfield's men began the calendar year as they had done the season, against the Cottagers. However unlike the brisk summer evening in August when the Gunners dispatched their London rivals by two goals to one, this time it finished 2-0 to the visitors.
Scorers on that occasion, Jay Simpson and Armand Traore, were not involved this evening and neither were those expected to feature in Arsène Wenger's Carling Cup squad - Mark Randall, Fran Merida and Gavin Hoyte.
There was however a notable return to action for Kerrea Gilbert, back from his loan spell with Southend. Summer acquisitions Havard Nordtveit and Gilles Sunu also returned after lengthy periods on the sidelines - they would be introduced on the hour.
The 35-day absence from competitive action had a seemingly negative effect on Banfield's young charges. Slow out of the blocks, it took a heart-stoppingly close near-miss to spark them into life.
Lee Cook, a multi-million pound summer signing from Queen's Park Rangers, weaved a little bit of trickery down the left-flank before standing a sumptuous cross right into the path of the advancing Wayne Brown. The timing of his leap was impeccable but his header was not. Almost, but not quite. To the relief of those in the stands the crossbar prevented a likely opener.
It fired Banfield's boys into life and, although Tony Warner remained untroubled, their presence began to be felt. The Fulham stopper, boasting Premier League experience, would soon be wishing for a return to the uneventful early moments. In the space of 15 minutes, the Liverpudlian produced a string of superb saves to thwart Abu Ogogo, Kieran Gibbs and Sanchez Watt.
The former, a right-back by nature, was playing in an advanced role to accommodate the return of Gilbert. Effortlessly making the transition, the 19-year-old was a menace throughout the first-half and, when sent clear by the deftest of touches by Fonte, only Warner's intervention robbed him of his first Reserve team goal.
Spiced only by the occasional effort on goal and fierce biting challenge, the first-half looked to be petering into insignificance. Fulham though, anonymous since the opening exchanges, did remind Vito Mannone of their direct threat, Cook drawing a fine stop by the Italian just a moment before the break.
Within a minute of the restart both teams had equally glorious openings. Watt for the Gunners somehow neglected to make contact with the ball when well placed. Seconds earlier Milson was a whisker from converting another cross from Cook.
The deadlock stayed intact for just five more minutes. With little fortune coming when using the ball on the floor, the visitors opted for lofted approach. First, captain for the night Paul Rodgers then debutant Kyle Bartley horribly misjudged one such speculative launch forward. Further dallying from Gilbert let in Ismael Ehui who, with the clearest opening of the match, put Fulham in front. The 21-year-old made no mistake coolly slotting home under Mannone from the edge of the area.
Rui Fonte and Watt, both good prospects in their own right, had struggled to adapt to their new partnership. As a result, summer acquisition Sunu replaced the latter. It was part of a triple substitution, a first for the season, that ensured a freshness remained in the Arsenal ranks.
In truth it wasn't needed. They had more than matched their opponents since the goal and had Lady Luck been shining on them, a leveller may have arrived sooner.
A battling spirit though resonates deep inside these youngsters. Banfield had touched on it in his mid-term review, and it was evident here. All over the field the Gunners were winning 50-50 challenges. In some cases, even longer odds did little to deter them.
With the hosts committing men forward, Fulham's second had an air of inevitability about it. Nine minutes remained when, racing forward on the counter-attack, Ehui turned provider. Shirking the attentions of Rodgers, the with scalpel-sharp precision he squared the ball into the path of Brown. The tenacious midfield, scorer when the two sides met in the season's curtain raiser, had little to do, but under pressure buried the ball passed a helpless Wojciech Szczesny for two yards out. Game over.
So not the start, results-wise at least, Banfield would have wanted. This though is an ever-improving Arsenal side and should the second-half of the season yield performances and a points tally as impressive as the first, it should be a case of mission accomplished.
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