By Adam Clark
An enthralling contest at Underhill ended in bitter disappointment for Arsenal Reserves as they went down 2-1 to Aston Villa.
Neil Banfield's side proved the equal of their opponents for much of the night and could easily have taken three points in a flowing end-to-end encounter.
A frantic start saw the visitors take the lead inside two minutes when Adam McGurk steered home. However, the in-form Jay Simpson, who became the first player to hit a hat-trick at Emirates Stadium in last week's FA Youth Cup win over Cardiff, was on target again to equalise nine minutes later.
Ultimately though the young Gunners were undone when Luke Moore, a scorer of two Premiership goals this term, produced a finish of pure class to ensure a Villa victory with 13 minutes remaining.
A highly-entertaining first half had barely found its stride when, on two minutes, the visitors took the lead. A well-worked corner routine coupled with some hesitant Arsenal defending presented McGurk with a hooked finish from close range.
Banfield's side could have been level less than 120 seconds later but Simpson's imaginative chip over the advancing keeper Robert Olejnik dropped agonisingly wide.
As both sides maintained the ferocious early pace, gaps were exposed in both defences and midfielders Craig Gardner and Yago Bellon missed gilt-edged chances for Villa.
They were made to pay on 11 minutes when another chance fell to Simpson. He had looked confident following his recent scoring feat, and made no mistake.
Fran Merida, the driving force behind many of Arsenal's better moves, faked a shot before cleverly playing Simpson through on goal. The striker let the ball role across his body before firing a shot that crept through Olejnik's legs.
With both teams threatening a glut of goals Henri Lansbury had a powerful rising free-kick expertly tipped over by Olejnik. Almost immediately though the Villa keeper was so nearly embarrassed when his clearance cannoned back off Isaiah Osbourne and trickled inches wide.
Arsenal continued to look bright going forward but they were indebted to two superb saving tackles. The first from Paul Rodgers denied Moore a shot, the second from Gavin Hoyte halted McGurk, who looked certain to double his, and Villa's, tally.
Play continue to ebb and flow on a pitch that held up well having surviving two pitch inspections following prolonged periods of rain earlier in the day. Hoyte and Carl Parisio, making his first appearance of the season, proved water-tight at the back while Simpson was denied by the impressive makeshift centre back Osbourne.
Unsurprisingly the start of the second half failed to live up to that of the first.
The first decent chance came when Merida's deflected pass fell kindly for Simpson. The striker's rasping drive flew wide of the upright, and when the same two players combined again seconds later Merida's effort followed a similar path wide to Olejnik's right.
Villa thought they had regained the lead on the hour but McGurk was denied by the linesman after turning in Mannone's parry. The decision served to rouse Arsenal once more but a spate of chances went begging.
First, Simpson and James Dunne played a neat one-two to carve open the Villa defence but the latter scuffed his shot under pressure.
Then, Merida, consistently brilliant in midfield, played an inviting through-ball for substitute Rui Fonte only for the Portuguese striker to blaze over from the edge of the box.
The Gunners second string were on top for the first time in an even contest but after powering past his marker Simpson dragged yet another effort across the face of goal.
Arsenal's failure to test Olejnik proved costly because on 77 minutes Moore produced a goal worthy of winning any game. The striker showed his Premiership experience in turning Parisio before curling a fine shot high to Mannone's left.
Banfield's side continued to probe and in the dying minutes Olejnik smartly scooped the ball away from Gibbs after he was played through by Lansbury. It proved to be the last chance for the hosts as Villa piled on the pressure to play out the game.
It may be six defeats in a row for the young Gunners but they can be heartened by this performance. Manager Neil Banfield insists Reserve team football is all about the development of Arsenal's next generation. On this evidence, they are learning fast.
Jay Simpson scores the equaliser
Simpson and his team-mates celebrate
Kieran Gibbs sprints up-field
Gavin Hoyte holds off his man
Van den Berg gets close attention
Gibbs rides a Bellon challenge
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