By Declan Taylor
An inspired second-half display ensured Arsenal finished their Reserve League South campaign with a richly-deserved victory at Underhill on Monday night.
West Brom looked most dangerous in the first half and the Gunners had Vito Mannone to thank for a magnificent penalty save after 23 minutes. However, after the break, Arsenal made their presence felt.
Mark Randall spanked a low free-kick past Ryan Allsop five minutes after the interval before substitute Jay Emmanuel-Thomas slid home the hosts’ second just past the hour mark.
The three points mean Neil Banfield’s boys finish this rather up-and-down season sixth in the Reserve League South.
Banfield made four changes to the side held at the Hawthorns last week. In midfield, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong replaced Fran Merida and Emmanuel-Thomas while the fit-again Rhys Murphy and Gilles Sunu came in for Rui Fonte and Amaury Bischoff.
After impressing in the Black Country, young Spaniard Ignasi Miquel was handed another start alongside captain Kyle Bartley in central defence.
For the Baggies, the likes of Roman Bednar, Felipe Teixeira and Luke Moore were all replaced by an array of talented youngsters.
The cloudless sky over Underhill was perfect end-of-season fare; even Mannone needed a cap to protect against the bright sunlight. That said, neither side appeared to be going through the motions in the opening stages. The challenges were bullish and both sides’ early counter-attacks were rapid.
In the 10th minute, Sam Mantom skipped off the byline and teed up Saido Berahino eight yards out. The striker’s effort was firm but straight at Mannone and Miquel hacked the rebound away from danger.
The Gunners were still without a chance of their own when West Brom really should have opened the scoring after 23 minutes. Bartley was penalised for a tug on Josh Knight inside the box and referee Cooper pointed to the spot.
But, although Berahino’s spot-kick was well struck, Mannone clawed the ball clear high to his right-hand side.
The let-off appeared to give the hosts the lift they required. Ten minutes before the break Murphy, sent clear by Coquelin, clipped a sumptuous ball to the back post which sailed inches over the onrushing Sanchez Watt.
Moments later the striker raced onto Sunu’s through-ball but slashed his effort a foot wide when one-on-one with Allsop. Sunu followed suit five minutes before the break but the Frenchman’s vicious rising shot was tipped over brilliantly by the keeper.
Perhaps it was the famous Underhill slope, the brisk wind in their sales or some choice half-time words from the boss but it was a completely different Arsenal that emerged after the break.
Almost straight from the kick-off Randall had Allsop scrambling backwards with a looping shot from the halfway line. The keeper claimed it but it was a sure signal of intent from the Gunners.
The 19-year-old blazed a long-range half-volley over the crossbar before he finally provided the breakthrough.
Sunu was sent toppling a yard outside the box and Randall drilled the resulting free-kick through the wall and into the bottom corner. It was the Englishman’s fourth Reserve goal of the campaign, putting him top of the second-string scoring chart.
West Brom were struggling to find an answer to the velocity of Arsenal’s attacks and Sunu, Watt and substitute Emmanuel-Thomas, who replaced Murphy at centre forward, all went close before the home side doubled their advantage.
It was Emmanuel-Thomas, only nine minutes after his introduction, who delicately finished under the advancing Allsop from 12 yards.
The Baggies threatened fleetingly but Miquel, now alongside substitute Ayling in defence, looked thoroughly accomplished when called upon.
Arsenal continued to probe in the closing stages and Emmanuel-Thomas would have had his second but for a brave sliding block from Paul Downing late on.
So the curtain falls on this season. And, in a campaign where results were sometimes hard to come by, this was the perfect tonic.
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