By Nick Teale
Arsenal's Reserve League title hopes were severely dented on Monday night when West Ham United inflicted a 2-0 defeat on Neil Banfield's side.
An early strike in each half saw the Hammers collect all three points at Underhill, despite the Gunners' unrelenting attacking threat in the final half hour.
Lukasz Fabianski was the stand-out name on the Arsenal team sheet. The goalkeeper hadn’t appeared in a Gunners shirt since the Champions League defeat in Porto last month.
After last week's win over Wolves Neil Banfield had said he wanted to see his side turn their possession into chances. But it was West Ham who had the first opportunities of this match and after nine minutes Davide Ferrari opened the scoring.
Terry Dixon found the midfielder in front of goal, with the time and space to provide a cool but powerful finish.
After going behind Arsenal began to dominate. Cedric Evina was lively pushing forward on the left and Luke Freeman came within inches of making a connection as he stretched to reach a low Francis Coquelin cross.
With 25 minutes on the clock Conor Henderson tested Peter Kurucz from range. The shot was straight at the West Ham keeper but was worth an effort on a slippery surface.
The Hammers came close to a second when Ahmed Abdulla headed a 29th-minute free-kick just wide of the far post.
Arsenal continued to press and Nacer Barazite and Conor Henderson both had efforts before West Ham again went close to doubling their lead. A throw in the visitors' attacking third found its way to Nicky Bennett and the midfielder lined up a shot from 20 yards.
It needed the tiniest of deflections to narrowly miss the target.
Then, in the 45th minute came perhaps Arsenal's best chance of the half. Sanchez Watt touched the ball right for Barazite. The midfielder got away from the West Ham defence but blazed his shot high and wide of goal.
Seven minutes after the break Dixon struck what could become a decisive blow in Arsenal's Reserve League title hunt.
The striker raced away from the Gunners' backline to latch onto a well-placed through ball from Ahmed Abdulla. One-on-one with Fabianski, he made no mistake in slotting the ball beyond the Pole.
It was a well-taken finish after an inch-perfect ball and could spell the end of Arsenal's title chance. But the Gunners were not prepared to give up easily.
Five minutes after the goal only the crossbar could deny Barazite's wonderful strike. He lifted the ball towards goal from just outside the area and his exquisite chip had the keeper beaten. Fortunately for West Ham the woodwork thwarted what would have been a superb opener for the hosts.
Arsenal continued to plough forward. Henderson was a whisker away from finding the back of the net with a low drive and Barazite headed over from a corner.
The Dutch youth international came close again in the 69th minute when Henderson's corner fell for the midfielder. His powerful shot forced a good save but the ball landed just behind Evina and West Ham escaped unpunished.
Arsenal's attacking threat was unrelenting in the closing quarter of the match. Watt was unlucky to stumble in the box after collecting a pass from Eastmond and Frimpong became the second Gunner to hit the post after meeting Coquelin's cross with his head.
Banfield's side had gone close on numerous occasions as they attempted to salvage points from the match. But nobody was as persistent as Barazite.
With five minutes to go he bore down on goal but had his shot closed down by the on-rushing keeper. It looked like being one of those nights.
And indeed it was. Arsenal had pressed and pressed and pressed in the final 25 minutes but had nothing to show for it.
They remain two points behind Aston Villa but have played two games more. With four games to go, the Reserve League title looks a distant dream.
Victory against Birmingham next week may well be an essential if Banfield's side are to top the table.
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