Date: 23rd September 2009 at 10:17am
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Carling Cup games are always a different experience, different crowd, different team, different expectations. In fact, they remind me of my student days, when I would make the journey onto campus during the summer months when all the undergrads were at home for three months, yet the campus would still be burgeoning with the activity of summer students- like an alternate universe. It was a tad disappointing to see some empty seats dotted about the upper tiers, I think Wenger has forged such a reputation for his young teams in his competition that I don`t think £20 was an unreasonable price to pay to watch them pit their young wits against an expansive and confident side like West Brom.

Arsene had taken the liberty of naming most of his starting line up before the match, presumably safe in the knowledge that Roberto di Matteo can hardly have had the chance to study up on the likes of Sanchez Watt and Gilles Sunu. Some more familiar faces were also present in the line up- Philippe Senderos received a warm reception on his first game back for sixteen months. Opinions of him vary (I think I`ve made it clear on this site just how highly I rate him) but I think everybody sees he`s a good guy who always gives his all for the cause. The much maligned Mikael Silvestre also lined up for his first appearance of the season, providing guidance and calm assurance throughout. The manager reached into the annals to pick the forgotten Kerrea Gilbert at right back- a feature of Arsenal`s run in the competition in 2005-06. Back then he looked all set to push Lauren out of contention as the long term successor to the right back slot. But a couple of meandering loan spells punctuated by unspecified personal/ attitude problems seems to have enervated his progress at Southend and Leicester. West Brom made six changes to the side that comprehensively thumped Boro 5-0 at the Riverside on Saturday, but that didn`t seem to take any of the zest from their game. Though the Young Guns could well have been ahead after as little as two minutes, Aaron Ramsey swung in a corner from the left and Phillipe Senderos moved to the near post completely unmarked but headed over. Three minutes later again, it was the same combo, Ramsey`s corner and Senderos rising to meet it but he could only glance it just wide.

The Baggies were not sufficiently chastened and came forward with intent; Robert Koren hung a high cross in from the right, Teixeira cleverly chested the ball down to debutant Jara and his shot angled just wide from the edge of the area with Szczesny covering with an assured dive. Arsenal hit back using a centrally positioned Jack Wilshere as their attacking pivot, Sanchez Watt played the ball into his path in the left channel, Wilshere using that gift of his to find tiny pockets of space, then pulled the ball back to the onrushing Watt, he stumbled as he applied the finish and the ball drifted and bobbled onto the foot of the post. Again, the scare appeared to inspire West Brom and Szczesny was forced into two fine low stops in as many minutes from Simon Cox and Robert Koren. The Baggies were beginning to impose themselves and Kerrea Gilbert had to clear off the line when Simon Cox bundled a corner goalwards. With Senderos, Gibbs and Silvestre at the back and Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield, Arsenal had sprinklings of first team quality in the spine of the side. But with Gilles Sunu shifted onto the right wing and the 18 year old Sanchez Watt asked to perform the thankless task of ploughing a lone furrow upfront, the Gunners lacked a bit of muscle and know how in the final third. I was actually a little surprised not to see Bendtner start the game to reinforce the forward line.

However, with West Brom looking ready to take a stranglehold of the match, an Arsenal Academy graduate halted them in their tracks. Not Wilshere, Watt nor Gibbs, but Jerome Thomas. After accidentally catching Wilshere in the face as the two jostled for the ball, Thomas offered a hand by way of apology which Wilshere seemed to refuse. Thomas idiotically retorted with a slap which earned him a deserved red card. It was a petulant gesture completely disproportionate to the wrong he had deemed done to him by Wilshere refusing his hand and, though di Matteo has looked to shift the blame to Wilshere in public, I am certain he will have had stern words with Thomas as it was an act of stupidity which ultimately cost them the game. Even at 11 versus 10 the match was evenly poised and could have gone either way, had the Baggies maintained a full compliment, they might well have won the match.

In fact it was the visitors who appeared to be in the ascendancy at the beginning of the second half and they really should have opened the scoring when Zuiverloon`s excellent right wing cross found a stooping Simon Cox who headed the ball inches over the crossbar. As is usually the case for the Young Guns, you felt that the first goal would ultimately decide the match and Arsenal did not look to have enough presence or guile upfront to break the Baggies down. Arsene looked to his substitutes bench and plucked Mark Randall and Carlos Vela from the shade and thrust them into the limelight. They didn`t disappoint. Within eight minutes of coming on, Vela showed the little bit of quality in the final third Arsenal had missed. Ramsey fed the ball into the Mexican on the edge of the area, he had the presence of mind to sense his surroundings and let the ball run past him, eking out half a yard of space, he unleashed a fierce shot which Kiely beat out and Sanchez Watt was on hand to slot home the rebound. For only the second time in the match, Watt had been able to feed off scraps rather than fight for scraps. Wilshere faded slightly as a creative force in the second half, something he may have to get used to is the attention exuded onto him by the opposition- they clearly regarded him as the key threat and doubled and trebled up on him when he had the ball. His team mates will also need to learn how to use the space that could afford them in the next round.

If one substitute had used some much needed quality on the edge of the area to create the first goal, Mark Randall was not to be usurped. Wilshere found Randall in space on the edge of the area, he clipped the ball over the stranded Kiely, the ball kissed the crossbar and rebounded out. Barnett senselessly tried to chest the ball back to his goalkeeper with Vela lurking; Vela muscled past Barnett and Kiely before impudently lifting the ball into the roof of the net from about two inches out. The finish had a playground manner about it, a bit like when you were a kid and had an open goal and elected to get down on your hands and knees and nudge the ball into the net with your head. In fact, I wondered for quite some time if the goal had been disallowed. With the game safe, Arsenal relaxed and played the sort of passing football you associate with them, Vela always looking to make an angle with his wide runs. West Brom might still have set up a late comeback. They probably deserved at least a goal for their efforts. Koren hit another excellent deep cross to the back post which Chris Wood met with a first time left foot volley which flew just wide. In the end it was another good win for the class of 2009-10. Senderos and Silvestre got valuable run outs and looked assured figures amongst young heads, Szczesny impressed and kept a clean sheet to boot which does his confidence no harm. I would be interested to see the squad for the next round though, Arsene tends to introduce a few older heads as the competition progresses and it`s fair to say that Arsenal did not really look to have enough upfront until Carlos Vela came on and changed the match. The prospect of having Vela fit to start the next round as well as a fit again Theo Walcott might beef up our resources. I`m sure had Arsene not endured so many injuries to forward players already this season that Bendtner might well have started this game. I also have to pay tribute to the opposition who, but for one errant member- ironically a product of Arsenal`s academy- might well have called themselves worthy winners. One would think a mid table Premiership side might well have been more clinical with their chances and therein lies a lesson for the next round. But lessons learned are what Arsenal`s philosophy in this competition is all about and the education of playing a tough game against committed opponents and coming out winners will be invaluable education indeed.LD.

Team: 52.SZCZESNY, 42.GILBERT, 6.SENDEROS, 18.SILVESTRE, 28.GIBBS, 35.COQUELIN (48.Randall `59), 16.RAMSEY, 19.WILSHERE, 51.SUNU (12.Vela `59), 30.TRAORE (33.Barazite `69), 54.WATT. Unused: 34.Bartley, 37.Eastmond, 41.Frimpong, 49.Shea.