Saturday, July 19, 2008, 3pm
By Matt Fortune
A tale of two halves at Underhill on Saturday ended with Arsenal emerging victorious from their traditional pre-season curtain-raiser.
Kenny Gillet handed Barnet a shock lead midway through the opening period against a more recognisable Gunners XI, but, after wholesale changes by the manager, last season's League One Player of the Year Jay Simpson (he spent the campaign with Millwall) and Dutchman Nacer Barazite hit back to earn the win.
Barnet's compact stadium was full this afternoon. Tickets had sold out sometime ago for the visit of the side who use Underhill for their second-string fixtures. In that sense, then, many of the young Gunners on show would be in familiar surroundings.
The list of substitutes contained just one player with a taste of Premier League action - Mark Randall and, barring Vito Mannone, the rest were all teenagers and Reserve team regulars. The starting XI was similarly awash with youth. Aaron Ramsey, 17, was handed his first start since moving to the Emirates from Cardiff City. Havard Nordtveit, also 17, partnered Justin Hoyte in the heart of the Gunners' defence.
Neither Barazite nor Emmanuel Adebayor, scorers in last season's 2-0 win over the Bees, started the match. The Togo international was absent altogether. Along with the rest of those who swapped the red of Arsenal for their countries colours over the summer, he will meet the team in Austria for further pre-season training. That meant Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott started up front.
For the hosts, former Arsenal youngster Adam Birchall led the line alongside Cliff Akurang, with Albert Adomah given licence to roam in from the right. The powerful midfielder had been ear-marked by Barnet manager Paul Fairclough as the one to watch and he certainly impressed with a series of raids down the flank in the first half.
Despite the overwhelming roars of support for the visitors, it was the hosts who started the brightest. Adomah was afforded too much space outside the box and, with the outside of his boot, drew a full-stretch stop from Manuel Almunia.
But Arsenal soon began to assert themselves and half-chances came and went for Bendtner and Walcott. Ramsey's delicate through ball showcased what might be expected of the creative Welshman, and Armand Traore, too, was exhibiting some examples of why Wenger sees him as a winger rather than a full-back.
Then all of a sudden the majority of the ground fell silent, as, after Nordtveit had mis-timed a tackle, Gillet unleashed a vicious free-kick from 25-yards that flew blindside round the wall and inside Almunia's near post. Arsenal were shocked and it took until the 35th minute from them to produce anything like a shot at goal. However on that occasion Ramsey scuffed wide from just outside the box.
Bendtner then applied the finishing touch to a sweeping move only to see the ball trickle the wrong side of the upright, and Walcott had a curling effort flicked away by goalkeeper Rob Beckwith. Clichy had the final act of the half, but his rasping drive was too high. Arsenal needed to improve.
But, as expected, there was a complete change in personel at the break for Arsenal. On came the likes of Randall, Barazite and Simspon. All three would have a telling impact by the hour.
First Randall forced substitute 'keeper Lee Harrison into a sprawling save from a free-kick, then Barazite sent a fizzing drive just over the bar before Simpson got the breakthrough. The striker latched onto Jack Wilshere's incisive through ball and applied a thumping finish from just inside the area.
Honours even, then, but the Gunners looked the side most likely to seize control; Rui Fonte and Paul Rodgers went close.
And soon enough, Arsenal were in charge. Wilshere was the instigator once again. The talented youngster wrestled possession in midfield and surged into the heart of Barnet's final third, leaving behind him a flat-footed posse of midfielders. Simpson's clever run created the space and, after Wilshere had picked him out, the former Millwall man bided his time and played in Barazite who coolly dispatched the winner beneath Harrison.
From that point on impetus dropped and neither goalkeeper was unduly troubled before the end; in fact, the majority of time was spent noting Barnet substitutions.
But this afteroon's game was never supposed to be about the result and those inside Underhill were treated to a glimpse of the bright future at the Club. Ramsey looked every bit an Arsenal player in the first half, while there was a wealth of talent visible in the second. New boy Francis Coquelin stamped his authority on the midfield with a powerhouse performance which allowed Randall to orchestrate proceedings from behind the energetic front pair. Further back Gavin Hoyte and Rodgers gave an athletic account of themselves to prove above all else, that the Arsenal way runs right through the ranks.
A successful start to things for Arsène Wenger's men then, and the Frenchman will certainly be pleased with the application of his younger stars.