By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Reserves resumed their Premier League (South) campaign with a hard-fought and ultimately warming 1-1 draw at defending champions Reading on Thursday night.
A debut goal from 16-year-old Jack Wilshere deep into first-half stoppage time separated the sides at the break but Leroy Lita applied a forceful finish three minutes after the restart, ensuring a share of the spoils.
However, Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone is the man to take the plaudits. His penalty save moments from full-time was right out of the top drawer.
It has been a month since Neil Banfield took his squad on their travels. Without their own first-team stars Mark Randall, Kieran Gibbs and Fran Merida (all on loan), the second-string boss named more youthful side than usual. Wilshere, Craig Eastmond and January signing Luke Freeman all made the squad - the latter having scored twice for Steve Bould's Academy side a fortnight ago. Rhys Murphy returned after a long absence through injury while Nacer Barazite made his first start at this level in 2008.
For Reading, six of those those who started the reverse fixture were again on display. England Under-21 star Lita was the most notable name. He had decided the fixture at Underhill back in October and his contribution would again prove telling.
Arsenal were on the back foot for most of the opening quarter. Reading's combination of pace and power ensured that any clearance from the visitors came back instantly.
With their first attack of consequence, the Gunners nearly carved an opening. The imperious figure of Jay Thomas fed the marauding run of Armand Traore whose deep cross was met by Abu Ogogo. The youngster, playing in a more advanced role to his usual right-back spot, headed over under pressure.
It didn't stop there as Banfield's boys enjoyed a sustained spell of possession. Dutchman Barazite, though, was the only man to get a shot away.
Their dominant spell over, Arsenal came close to going behind. As so often at this level, experience nearly told. Lita, using his considerable strength, roughed his way past Havard Nordtveit and drew a smart stop from Mannone. The Italian was a worthy adversary for the Reading striker all evening.
However youthful exuberance and adventure can occasionally outweigh even the most seasoned professionals - Barazite and Paul Rodgers' neat skills proved that when they eeked out an opening down the right flank. Reading reasserted themselves but Nordtveit's desperate lunge prevented Lita latching onto a square pass, while the foot of Mannone's right-hand post was an equally important barrier seconds later - Convey striking it from a narrow angle.
When the deadlock was eventually broken, it encapsulated so much of what the young Gunners will need to cut it at senior level. The 'never give-up attitude' came from Rui Fonte - chasing a lost ball his mere presence caused an almighty mix-up between three Reading players. The silky skills and vision came from Barazite - benefiting from the mistake he danced away from the attention of De La Cruz and picked out Wilshere, whose cool finish oozed confidence.
So it was a happy half-time team talk. Three minutes after the interval though, the scores were level. Lita wriggled himself some space just inside the six-yard box and thumped an unstoppable strike high beyond the grasp of Mannone.
Arsenal responded well. Fonte forcing a stop from Adam Federici before Barazite had a worthwhile shout for a penalty turned down. The balance of the match swung to and fro but chances were at a premium.
Fresh blood arrived 20 minutes from the end. Murphy, an England Under-17 international, replaced Fonte, while Wilshere's debut came to an end as Thomas Cruise took the field - and made an instant impact. With Mannone beaten, Jem Karacan was odds-on to slot into an empty net. However Cruise flung himself into the path of the ball to divert it away for a corner.
Freeman arrived with 12 minutes remaining but had little chance to make an impact. That honour fell to the Gunners' Italian stopper. Confusion reigned as the referee pointed to the spot when it seemed Mannone had made a sprawling save at the feet of Jimmy Kebe. Completely dumbfounded, the 19-year-old got up, dusted himself off and set himself.
Long went right; Mannone guessed right. It was a spectacular save to end what was a very watchable affair.
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