A solitary Carlos Vela goal from the penalty spot on the stroke of half time ensured the Gunners took the spoils in FA Premier Reserve League action behind closed doors at London Colney on Tuesday afternoon.
In appalling conditions, the match was not one which will live long in the memory, with a lack of quality and creativity on display from both teams.
Managers Steve Holland and Neil Banfield both included a number of players who featured in the FA Youth Cup tie between the two teams last week, as the Blues called upon Billy Clifford, Daniel Pappoe and Aziz Deen-Conteh, whilst Arsenal used Emiliano Martinez, Daniel Boateng, Sead Hajrovic, Ignasi Miquel, Oguzhan Ozyakup, and Benik Afobe.
The hosts included first team experience in Mexican international Vela and midfielder Craig Eastmond, whilst Jeffrey Bruma and Ross Turnbull offered similar for Chelsea. However, they both played off very little sleep, having arrived back from Bolton at 2am in the morning following first team duty.
It was the visitors who looked lively early on in their first competitive league match since November, as they pressed with pace and looked to release forward Adam Phillip in the channels between the Arsenal back four.
Unfortunately, the passing from midfield was inconsistent and would remain so for much of the day.
Instead, Arsenal came back and had the first notable effort on goal, a right footed volley from Vela forcing Turnbull into a smart stop at his near post.
Gokhan Tore, playing on the right side of the attack and looking to cut inside, showed good footwork to beat two men on his way into the penalty area but dragged his shot wide of Martinez’ near post.
An unremarkable first half developed without much goalmouth activity, and without much by way of penetration in the final third. Both teams looked to build attacks from wide positions, leaving the central midfielders on the periphery of the action.
Kaby was lively in spells but both Michael Woods and Conor Clifford struggled to find their rhythm throughout and were starved of possession for long spells.
Luke Freeman was presented with a chance inside the box but his control let him down at the crucial moment, before Afobe was caught in two minds when allowed a free header from eight yards out.
The England Under-19 forward could have headed at goal or across towards the waiting Freeman, but with Turnbull approaching he ended up doing neither and placed the ball between the two options, safely behind for a goal kick.
With the first half petering out into almost nothing, the game swung in Arsenal’s favour. A careless loss of the ball on the edge of their own area saw Chelsea caught short on numbers. The hosts had men over and found Freeman, who bore down on goal.
Turnbull rushed out to close the angle and appeared to have been successful, but the diminutive forward simply flicked the ball away from his advanced and was felled by a trailing leg.
A penalty was awarded, and Vela coolly dispatched it, sending Turnbull the wrong way and giving his side a one goal advantage at the break.
The game didn’t improve in the second half, with rain and wind increasing in volume making the going tougher. Captain Bruma picked up a knock in clearing a cross for a corner and was able to recover, but his team were unable to make much of an impression at the other end of the pitch.
Afobe found an opening inside the area which he failed to get proper purchase on, allowing Turnbull to save, before Chelsea embarked upon their best spell of the afternoon.
Breaking from that incident, a fierce cross from the right fizzed across the six yard box and evaded the sprawling figure of Phillip by mere inches.
After a Vela free kick had landed only just the wrong side of the post, Chelsea began to play with a greater sense of purpose and vigour, with and carved out their best chance of an equaliser which came to Phillip.
Good approach play in and around the eighteen yard line saw the forward presented with a clear shooting opportunity, but he was leaning back as he struck the ball, and it cleared the crossbar.
Todd Kane’s introduction in replacement of Kaby saw Billy Clifford pressed into attack on the left side, in a bid to increase the tempo further, and half chances for Phillip and Woods were both unconvincing in their execution.
Sala had a penalty appeal correctly turned down as he evaded Miquel on a run towards the byeline, but in the closing stages Arsenal regained the ascendancy and looked the more likely to add to the scoreline.
The tall, strong Gilles Sunu took control of affairs, twice going on surging runs into Chelsea territory before missing the target by close margins. Turnbull was alert to deny Freeman with his face, and later proved agile enough to tip a chip from Vela over for a corner.
George Saville entered the game with five minutes left as Woods made way, whilst Kane was lucky to only see a yellow card for a challenge on Miquel which saw studs raised with force.
Neither side were at the top of their games on this particular occasion and will be the first to admit that they will have many better days. Chelsea played some good stuff at times but with a clear aim of beating the Arsenal defence on the turn with through balls to Phillip, they struggled.
Offsides approached double figures whilst many passes were either over or underhit, with ample space behind the home defence in which to play them. Perhaps the weather was a contributing factor, but today wasn’t to be their day.
Next Wednesday sees the culmination of the trifecta of match-ups, with Cobham hosting the return Reserve league match.
One would hope it proves more entertaining than today’s fare.
Team: Turnbull, B.Clifford, Bruma (c), Pappoe, Deen-Conteh, Woods (Saville 86), C.Clifford, Kaby (Kane 69), Gokhan Tore, Sala, Phillip
Subs Not Used: Blackman, Sampayo, Nkumu
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