By Nick Teale
Arsenal's Reserve League title challenge is all but over.
Current table-toppers Aston Villa held the Gunners to a 1-1 draw at Villa Park on Monday night, maintaining a two-point gap between the sides in the Premier Reserve League South.
But the undefeated West Midlanders still have three games to play to Arsenal's one.
Neil Banfield has expressed his desire to lift to trophy throughout this season but Nathan Delfouneso's goal early in the second half ensured that, despite Nacer Barazite's equaliser, the Gunners have little chance of lifting the crown this term.
Arsenal created few chances in the first half as Villa piled on the pressure. But keeper Andy Marshall was the hosts' hero in the second half, pulling off a string of impressive saves.
Ahead of the game Banfield made two changes to the side that beat Birmingham City 3-1 last week. Conor Henderson was on international duty with Republic of Ireland Under-19s and Craig Eastmond had travelled to Barcelona with the first team.
As a result, Francis Coquelin and Chuks Aneke stepped into the midfield.
Nigel Reo-Coker was the star turn in the hosts' line-up. The midfielder was returning from an ankle injury after almost three months on the sidelines.
But he was largely quiet as Villa started brightly. After forward runs by Marc Albrighton and Andreas Weimann the hosts produced the first meaningful chance of the game in the 13th minute.
Moustapha Salifou delivered a perfect cross from the right andDelfouneso made a good connection, forcing Mannone to tip over his bar.
The Villans continued to press with Weimann and Albrighton making life difficult for Arsenal full backs Cedric Evina and Nico Yennaris.
Aneke had the Gunners' first chance of note in the 29th minute when, having smashed a shot wide moments earlier, he powered a good effort into the side-netting from the left edge of the area.
But that was all Arsenal managed in the first half. Villa continued to trouble Banfield's side and 10 minutes before the break Delfouneso could have opened the scoring.
Under the watchful eye of England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce, the Villa forward shot just wide of goal after Weimann brought down a lofted ball.
And four minutes later Delfouneso forced another fine save from Mannone.
Collecting the loose ball after Reo-Coker won his midfield battle, the England Under-21 international dribbled forward and looked for the bottom corner with a well-placed shot. Mannone stretched low to his left and was able to turn the ball behind for a Villa corner which came to nothing.
At half-time Villa may have been disappointed not to have been ahead. But two minutes after the break they were.
Weimann's cross from the right was palmed away by Mannone. However, Delfouneso was able to turn the rebound into the net.
Five minutes later Arsenal could have been level. Barazite found Aneke inside the area and the Newham-born midfielder took aim only to see his effort tipped over the bar by Marshall.
It was a fine save and the Villa keeper had to be alert again soon afterwards when Barazite's corner fell to Miquel.
The centre-back had scored from a similar position against Birmingham last week but this time he was denied by a full-stretch Marshall at the front post.
And on the hour the Villa keeper was once again Arsenal's nemesis.
Aneke played an inch-perfect through ball to Freeman but Marshall parried his one-on-one shot. The rebound fell to Aneke and after he strode into the area his shot was blocked.
But with 12 minutes remaining, Arsenal got the goal they merited.
Substitute Roarie Deacon surged down the right and his cut back made life easy for Barazite. The Dutch international's second goal in as many games was a simple tap-in from two yards out.
The goal ensured Banfield's side got the point that was the least they deserved at Villa Park. But as far as the title race goes, it is all but over for the Gunners' second string.
- Barazite Goal!
- Aneke 77
- Freeman 71
- Murphy 59
- Hajrovic 71
- Afobe 59
- Deacon 77
Aston Villa Res
- Delfouneso Goal!