By Matt Fortune
Arsenal moved clear of Chelsea in the Reserve League South table with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Griffin Park on Monday night. Kieran Gibbs, returning from injury, scored the only goal of the game to make it three wins out of five for the young Gunners.
This was Arsenal's second game in six days so Neil Banfield called on the first-team experience of Denilson, Justin Hoyte and also Alex Song as the Cameroonian continued his recovery from an calf injury. Ultimately, it was this that proved the decisive factor.
Both teams started tentatively, but it was the visitors who got the earliest sniff of goal on six minutes. Nacer Barazite fed Rui Fonte but the striker's shot from the corner of the box lacked venom and was saved at the keeper's near post.
With 12 minutes gone the Gunners had another sight of goal. Abu Ogogo, playing in an advanced role in midfield, dispossessed Patrick van Aanholt and fed Fonte. The Portuguese player returned the favour and when Ogogo cut in from the by-line he found Barazite only for the Dutchman's low shot to be well saved by the goalkeeper's feet.
With men committed forward, Chelsea instantly broke clear. A long punt forward looked to have caught Arsenal unaware but Vito Mannone came racing off his line to clear the danger.
On 27 minutes Gibbs anticipated a Barazite flick on and, when the Chelsea defence hesitated, the winger held off a couple challenges then rounded the Rhys Taylor to slot the ball into an empty net. It was the least the England Under-19 international deserved having started the move by winning a throw from what looked like a lost cause.
Four minutes later it may well have been two. This time Barazite benefited from a flick on and when he pulled the ball back to unmarked Fran Merida, it seemed the Spaniard would score. However keeper Taylor flung himself to his left to deny him brilliantly.
A quick free-kick nearly created the equaliser for Chelsea on 38 minutes. Fabio Ferriera gathered it on the right and rolled the ball across the box to the approaching Miroslav Stoch. The teenager has scored five goals in the Academy and Reserve teams his season but on this occasion he was beaten to the ball by Mannone who smothered well.
Barring a couple of long-range efforts and the one chance that fell to the Slovakian, Chelsea hardly threatened Mannone's goal in the first-half. The Italian was a knowing sweeper on the occasions he was needed, while Song produced a half that justified Arsène Wenger's faith in him as a centre back.
With five minutes gone in the second period Denilson orchestrated some neat interplay in and around the Chelsea box that nearly created an opening. The final delivery though eluded everyone in the box. Chelsea heeded that particular warning and were soon asserting themselves on midfield. Unfortunately for them their fortune in front of goal didn't improve - a lack of quality in the final third meant Arsenal held on to the advantage.
The first effort on goal in the second-half fell to visitors on 65 minutes. Stoch latched onto a loose ball in midfield and instantly shaped to shoot. His dipping effort demanded Mannone's full attention but, thankfully for the stopper, it sailed just over.
Both sides showed plenty of endeavour in the minutes that followed but it wasn't until the 79th minute that the crowd could roar with anticipation. Denilson burst into the Chelsea half and with space opening up in front of him he let fly from distance. Taylor again swooped down to his right and shovelled the ball away.
Chelsea nearly hauled themselves back into the game. With a classic counter attack, substitute Gael Kakuta fed Harry Worley just inside the box. Mannone did well to get a hand on the shot but with the ball trickling towards the goal, Justin Hoyte recovered to hack it to safety.
Arsenal should well have made the game safe with two minutes remaining. Vincent van den Berg cut in from the left and sprayed a fine pass across the 18-yard line to Ogogo. The Englishman dropped a shoulder and looked to bend the ball around Taylor but another stunning save prevented the margin from doubling.
The result is welcome return to winning ways for Banfield's men after a loss and draw in the last two League fixtures, and will have shown a great deal of what his young side can do against a physical opposition.
Arsenal will host last season's champions Reading in two weeks time.
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