By Chris Harris
Arsenal emerged with a point from their top-of-the-table clash with Aston Villa after a gutsy performance in Hinckley on Monday night.
Neil Banfield’s side rode their luck at times – Villa hit the bar twice inside one first-half minute – but they had chances of their own too. Sanchez Watt, Fran Merida and Emmanuel Frimpong all went close to breaking the deadlock.
Ultimately, both sides had to settle for a draw that keeps Arsenal four points adrift of Villa at the top of the Reserve League South. But Banfield will take plenty of positives from this performance.
With 13 players on loan and Reserve team regulars Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Amaury Bischoff on first-team duty, the Arsenal manager fielded virtually an Under-18 side. Eight of the squad contributed to December’s Youth Cup victory at Villa but, if that was a source of inspiration, September’s 4-1 home defeat to the same opposition was a stark reminder that Arsenal could not let their standards slip.
There was certainly no lack of effort on this occasion but, nonetheless, Arsenal should have trailed inside 30 seconds. Villa won an instant free-kick from the kick-off and Barry Bannan’s delivery was headed down into the path of Andreas Weismann. Vito Mannone, captain for the night, smothered his shot brilliantly.
Villa went even closer after 18 minutes. Calum Flanagan got to the byline and cut the ball back for James Collins to crash a shot against the bar. Within 30 seconds the same piece of woodwork was wobbling again as Bannan missed a golden opportunity. Two big let-offs.
But it was by no means one-way traffic. The visitors found their stride and, despite a pitch that had felt the force of this month’s winter wonderland, they pinged the ball about well with Merida relishing a more advanced role.
The Spaniard went close after 28 minutes, showing persistence to dispossess Shane Lowry but shanking his right-foot shot wide. Frimpong went through on goal seconds later but shot weakly. Then Watt forced a fine tip-over from Elliott Parish after smart build-up play from Emmanuel-Thomas and Gilles Sunu.
Villa finished the half strongly with Craig Eastmond stretching to divert Jonathan Hogg’s header just wide of the post. And the League leaders stepped up a gear after the break with Marc Albrighton, the scourge of Arsenal five months ago, looking dangerous on the right.
The visitors had to scrap to stay on level terms - and they did. When the last-ditch challenges of Havard Nordtveit and Kyle Bartley weren’t enough, Mannone’s safe hands did the job with Albrighton and Bannan both denied by the Italian stopper. And when Mannone was finally beaten, Thomas Cruise was on hand to kick Lowry’s header off the line.
Arsenal regained a foothold in the match for a while and substitute Cedric Evina saw his shot deflected wide. The visitors then enjoyed a good spell of their own as Villa seemed to tire in the closing stages.
The hosts had enough puff to carve out two more chances as Collins headed a diagonal cross past the post and then lashed a shot past the far post. But Arsenal kept their shape, kept their spirit, and preserved their point.
- Watt 53
- Emmanuel-Thomas Yellow Card
- Sunu 80
- Afobe 80
- Evina 53
Aston Villa Res
- Calum Flanagan
- Jonathan Hogg
- Eric Lichaj
- Osbourne 79
- Lowry Yellow Card
- Andreas Weimann
- Andras Steiber 79
- Tobias Mikaelsson
- Arsenio Halfhuid
- David Bevan