Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played 45 minutes as Arsenal Under-21s progressed to the quarter-finals of the Under-21 Premier League Cup after a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Fulham.
The England international has been out of action for five months with a knee injury but delivered a highly-encouraging performance at Motspur Park on his return as the Gunners beat the current league leaders.
After a tight first half, Thomas Eisfeld scored the only goal of the game in the 59th minute with a close-range finish. The Gunners then missed host of chances to double their lead and in the end were forced to defend well to hold on.
Steve Gatting’s side will now face an intriguing home tie against Chelsea in the last eight.
SETTING THE SCENE
The big news before kick-off was that Oxlade-Chamberlain would be given a run-out as he nears a return to the first team.
Carl Jenkinson, Emmanuel Frimpong and Ryo were also in the starting line-up, with 16-year-old Daniel Crowley among the substitutes after his impressive display against Peterborough in the FA Youth Cup on Monday.
It was Arsenal’s second visit to Motspur Park this season having been held to a goalless draw by Fulham back in September.
Both sides had opportunities to take an early lead. First, Muamer Tankovic muscled Semi Ajayi off the ball before sliding a neat pass into strike partner Moussa Dembele but he fired his shot over with just Matt Macey to beat.
In the seventh minute, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first real involvement almost resulted in an Arsenal goal. The forward exchanged passes with Benik Afobe before attempting a chip over Jesse Joronen but his effort flew over.
After a frantic opening 10 minutes the game started to settle down. Fulham controlled the majority of possession but the Gunners always looked a threat on the break.
But for all of Fulham’s possession, it was Arsenal who created the most clear-cut chances of the first half.
On 33 minutes, Oxlade-Chamberlain whipped in a superb free-kick which was flicked on by Afobe and over Joronen but clipped the top of the crossbar.
Oxlade-Chamberlain then tried to bend an effort into the far corner from the edge of the area but Joronen did well to scramble across his goal to tip the ball behind.
Arsenal missed their best chance right on half-time when Eisfeld was put through on goal but Joronen was quick off his line to block the German’s shot with his legs.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was replaced at half-time by Jon Toral but the 20-year-old would have been pleased after a lively performance.
The Cottagers created the first opportunity of the second period when Ange Freedy Plumain was given a clear run on goal but the left winger arrowed his shot wide from a relatively tight angle
But in the 59th minute Arsenal made the breakthrough. Nico Yennaris managed to get to the byeline and slid in cross which found Ryo at the back post who tried to tee up the unmarked Afobe whose shot was blocked. But the ball fell to the arriving Eisfeld who poked the ball beyond Joronen and into the top corner.
Arsenal were starting to control proceedings and missed two great chances to double their lead. In the 67th minute Jenkinson got beyond Tom Richards and crashed a shot over before Frimpong shot straight at Joronen with the goal gaping moments later.
Jenkinson then went close with with a free-kick from the edge of the box which Joronen managed to fingertip over.
In the 81st minute Ryo was put through on goal but Richards made a well-timed challenge to nick the ball away from the Japanese forward just before he pulled the trigger.
Ronny Minkwitz headed against the outside of the post in the dying moments but like much of 2013, Arsenal’s young defence stayed strong to hold out for a clean sheet
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