By Declan Taylor
A young Arsenal Reserves side slipped to a narrow defeat at the hands of an equally youthful West Ham outfit at Underhill on Monday night.
Despite enjoying large periods of possession in both halves, Neil Banfield’s boys were unable to penetrate an organised and efficient Hammers backline.
They paid the price for their profligacy 18 minutes from time when right-back Ashley Miller slotted home after James Shea had diverted Christian Montano’s effort.
Rhys Murphy was introduced in the second half but was withdrawn after only 18 minutes with a hamstring injury. A worrying sight for the Reserves who are now without a goal in their last three matches.
Last Thursday’s FA Youth Cup success was reflected in Banfield’s squad with 12 of the 14-man squad having featured in some capacity at White Hart Lane.
Mark Randall skippered the side from central midfield just behind Amaury Bischoff playing in his now-regular No 10 berth. They were the only players over the age of 18 in Arsenal’s starting XI.
But the young Gunners were among peers. In fact, 10 of the Hammers’ squad had faced the Arsenal Under-18s in a league fixture during February.
Unsurprisingly the opening stages lacked the intensity of that Youth Cup tie but both sides were well-organised and moved the ball quickly.
The visitors threatened fleetingly down the right-hand side, mainly through the industrious Daniel Kearns. However, Shea always comfortably dealt with the winger’s whipped crosses.
Arsenal, for the most part, bossed proceedings but were confronted by two incredibly resolute banks of four. Because of that, a lot of the home side’s joy came from set-pieces.
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Randall both saw direct free-kicks diverted by the wall while Kyle Bartley almost connected with a swirling Wilshere cross.
It was from another dead-ball situation, this time a corner, that Arsenal had their first real sight of goal in the 34th minute.
Wilshere collected a short corner on the left-hand side before jinking into the box and firing right-footed towards goal. Marek Stech was beaten all ends up but unfortunately so was the keeper’s left-hand post.
Stech was forced into action by one of his own players four minutes later when captain Bondz N’Gala almost flicked Bischoff’s teasing delivery inside the far post. Once again the keeper looked well beaten but he produced a fine one-handed save to keep the scores level.
However, for all of Arsenal’s first-half dominance, it was the Hammers who went closest to taking an advantage into the interval.
Kearns again was the main protagonist, bursting in off the right before arrowing an effort against the crossbar from just inside the area. Balint Bajner looked certain to nod in the rebound but the bounce just evaded his six-foot-four frame.
Normal service was resumed after the break with the game being played almost exclusively in the Hammers’ half.
Perhaps it was the help of Underhill’s famous slope but there was a renewed urgency in Arsenal’s football and although clear-cut chances were scarce, goals didn’t seem too far away.
Banfield certainly thought so too, replacing right-back Craig Eastmond with fit-again striker Murphy after 65 minutes.
However, it was a different substitute who would make the difference.
West Ham’s Christian Montano, who was introduced on 70 minutes, saw a prodded effort saved well by Shea but the rebound fell only as far as the onrushing Miller who coolly stroked the ball into the unguarded net from 10 yards.
It could’ve have been two 60 seconds later but Kearns saw his attempted lob from the edge of the area brilliantly clawed to safety by Shea.
Murphy almost had the desired effect after 82 minutes when he latched onto Bischoff’s through-ball before attempting to delicately lift an effort over the advancing Stech.
Unfortunately, the keeper diverted the strike away from goal, but more unfortunate was a further injury to Murphy in the aftermath of the effort. He was duly replaced by Sanchez Watt.
Arsenal continued to probe but in the end the Hammers looked in little danger of relinquishing their first away victory this term.
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