By Richard Clarke
Debutant Fran Merida inspired Arsenal Reserves' two-goal
comeback in the second-string North London derby on Monday
The 16-year-old made one goal for Nacer Barazite and then scored
a wonderful free-kick as Neil Banfield's side stormed back
after trailing 2-0 at the interval.
A revival seemed highly unlikely in the first half as Jamie
O'Hara's penalty and Simon Dawkins' opportunistic
strike gave the home side a fully-merited 2-0 advantage.
However Banfield switched tactics at the interval and his
youthful side responded. None more than Merida, a
technically-gifted terrier who sprayed incisive passes all over the
Stevenage Borough pitch.
It was an eye-catching introduction to competitive football in
With the first-team squad about to fly out to Hamburg for
Wednesday's Champions League tie, Banfield had little
experience at his disposal. He ended up choosing perhaps one of
young squads ever to represent Arsenal. Four starters and the
entire bench were 16-years-old.
There were also four full debutants. Two Dutchman - Barazite,
16, and Vincent van den Berg, 17 - were paired up front. Merida was
deployed in midfield while Joe O'Cearuill, 19, slotted in at
centre back alongside Ryan Garry.
Banfield moved Matthew Connolly to right back to accommodate the
pair. It did not appear to affect him. In the seventh minute, the
Reserve team captain executed a superb sliding tackle to dispossess
Jacques Maghoma as the left winger bore down on goal.
However six minutes later Spurs went ahead when Garry tripped
Jamie Davies as he tried to weave through a crowded penalty area.
O'Hara scored from the spot.
Arsenal carved out their first effort in the 20th minute when
Mark Randall thumped Merida's corner straight into the chest of
Spurs keeper Marton Fulop.
However they handed Tottenham a second two minutes later. Under
pressure from Andy Barcham, Lee Butcher could only hack Garry's
pass straight to the unmarked Dawkins. The Spurs striker was left
with the relatively simple task of rounding the keeper and slotting
It might have been worse eight minutes before half time when
Barcham leapt on to Garry's error, exchanged passes Dawkins and
Butcher pulled off a superb one-on-one save.
Garry nearly nodded Arsenal back into contention from
Randall's free-kick just before the whistle. However Spurs were
good value for their lead at half time.
Dawkins had two chances to extend Tottenham's advantage, and
surely kill the game, at the start of the second half. But there
was renewed urgency about Arsenal. In the 50th minute, Merida
spotted Barazite roaring down the left. The Spaniard's 40-yard
pass was perfect. The Dutchman cut inside his marker and curled
home a well-crafted strike.
It was the goal the game needed. Jay Simpson, who had been
pushed up front, was posing problems for the home defence.
Meanwhile Randall and the busy Merida began passing with greater
Barcham nodded a glorious chance over the bar in the 57th minute
but, in the main, the pendulum had swung Arsenal's way.
In the 64th minute, Charlie Lee felled Simpson 25 yards out and
Merida curled a sumptuous free-kick over the wall and into the far
corner of the net.
The comeback was nearly complete four minutes later when
Merida's half-volley from midfield sent Simpson sprinting
clear. The Londoner's shot was half-saved by Fulop and Leigh
Mills hacked the ball away from under his own bar.
Both sides were now going for the winner. Spurs substitute Tomas
Pekhart nodded a swirling cross into the arms of Butcher, Efrem cut
in from the right and fired over the bar.
With two minutes left, Merida sent Simpson clear again. This
time the striker miscued horribly.
Despite such a sterling first-half display, Spurs might feel
slightly fortunate to have gained a point this evening.
Arsenal TV Online subscribers will be able to see video
highlights of the game on Tuesday.
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