By Mo Khan
Arsenal remain top of the Reserve League South following a
workmanlike 2-1 win at Watford on Monday night.
Midfielder Jay Simpson - who turned 17 last Thursday - opened
the scoring on the quarter-hour mark with a well-taken finish from
the edge of the box. The tricky winger also scored in the
Under-18s' win over Charlton on Saturday, making it quite a
week for the Londoner.
Simpson then notched his second of the evening with three
minutes remaining before Toumani Diagouraga's immediate reply
for the home side set up a tense finale.
On a bitterly cold evening at Vicarage Road, Neil Banfield's
Arsenal side enjoyed the bulk of possession and may have emerged
victorious by a greater margin but for the excellence of
Watford's experienced goalkeeper, Alec Chamberlain.
Banfield made five changes to his starting XI from the 2-2 draw
with Southampton last month.
In came Mark Howard for Manuel Almunia in goal and, with Matthew
Connolly not involved, Johan Djourou and Fabrice Muamba formed the
central defensive partnership.
Anthony Stokes returned for an impressive performance in central
midfield alongside Patrick Cregg and Shane Tracy was drafted in on
the left flank. Sebastian Larsson was not in the squad and Marc
Elston took his place on the bench.
And following his first-team debut at left-back against Reading
in the Carling Cup last week, Kerrea Gilbert played the same role
for the reserves as Rene Steer dropped to the bench.
The surface at Vicarage Road hardly made for the flowing passing
game usually associated with Banfield's young side so it was to
their credit that they refused to abandon their footballing
philosophy and persevered, playing eye-catching football on a far
from eye-catching pitch.
In a scrappy opening, Arturo Lupoli had a goal disallowed for
offside following fine work by Stokes.
Watford threatened themselves shortly afterwards through
Francino Francis, but as the tall striker thought he was in on
goal, Howard came rushing from his line to smother the danger. It
was a prelude for a similar stop in the second-half by the Arsenal
goalkeeper as he put in a superb performance. The Enfield-born
stopper looked composed and dominant in the air all evening and was
at one stage applauded individually by Banfield after he claimed a
difficult corner with ease.
Arsenal took the lead with just 15 minutes played. Stokes found
Bendtner on the left of the Watford penalty area and when the tall
forward slipped the ball forward it seemed Lupoli and Simpson would
get in each other's way. Instead, Simpson took command and
dispatched a right-foot finish firmly past Chamberlain.
Simpson was now clearly full of confidence and Watford's
defence had no answer to his pace and quick feet on the right of
midfield. After 18 minutes, Simpson beat two Watford defenders
before crossing for Bendtner, but the Dane could not get a shot
away quick enough and the danger was snuffed out by the home
Simpson was also the architect of Arsenal's next foray
forward of note, dispossessing his marker on the right before
bursting into the box. When he squared it for Lupoli it looked for
all the world that it would be 2-0 but the Italian's first-time
right-foot shot was palmed away by Chamberlain. The loose ball fell
to Stokes who in turn found Cregg on the edge of the box and his
fizzing shot flew marginally wide of the left-hand post.
The second half followed a similar pattern with Arsenal
dominating possession while Watford looked intermittently
Howard in the visitors' goal was immaculate as Watford
applied some sustained pressure midway through the second period
but Arsenal looked as though they could score at any moment.
With 69 minutes played, Stokes played the pass of the game with
a 50-yard ball over the top of the Watford rearguard and into the
path of Bendtner. As the former Copenhagen youngster strode
purposefully forward into the penalty area, he was crowded out and
the Hornets survived. The same two combined again with six minutes
remaining but this time Bendtner's first touch was a little
heavy and Chamberlain came hurtling off his line to gather at the
But with just four minutes left on the clock, it seemed Watford
would grab an unlikely equaliser. Substitute Kyle Matthews found
himself with time, space and just the goalkeeper to beat in the
Arsenal penalty area. But Howard pulled off a stunning block
Arsenal raced to the other end of the pitch and Cregg slipped in
Simpson who cut in onto his left foot before coolly lifting the
ball past Chamberlain.
Game over - or so it seemed. Seconds later, Watford attacked
from the restart, the ball broke for Diagouraga on the edge of the
box and the lanky midfielder found the top-right corner of
Howard's goal with a sublime finish.
Cue a Watford mini-onslaught, but it was too little too late for
the home side and Arsenal hung on to go four points clear at the
top of table.
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