By Mo Khan
Arsenal were held to a 2-2 draw by Southampton at Underhill on Monday night as the away side's performance director, former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward, looked on from the stands.
Jay Simpson gave Arsenal the lead after 12 minutes before Southampton equalised early in the second period courtesy of David McGoldrick. The Gunners regained the advantage through Arturo Lupoli just after the hour mark but the south-coast side forced an equaliser with just six minutes remaining to secure a hard-fought point against the Reserve League South leaders.
Neil Banfield made four changes from the line-up that secured the Gunners' third straight away London derby win at Charlton last Wednesday. Manuel Almunia replaced Estonian international Mart Poom in goal as the Spaniard made his third appearance of the season for the Reserves.
Rene Steer, 15, played at left back in the absence of Mitchell Murphy and Simpson came into midfield to make his second Reserves start of the season. Fabrice Muamba was not involved so Patrick Cregg moved infield to partner Sebastian Larsson in the centre of midfield with Simpson operating along the right touchline. Irishman Anthony Stokes was also missing from the team that started the win over the Addicks and his place on the left of midfield was taken by Marc Elston, the Croydon-born forward who scored on his only other start for the Reserves this season - the 3-1 win over Fulham at Motspur Park last month.
Arsenal started the game brightly and could have been a goal up inside 60 seconds as they broke at pace down Southampton's left-hand side. Larsson, wearing the captain's armband, found Simpson on the right and the tricky winger slipped in the overlapping Kerrea Gilbert, who had joined the attack from right-back. As the pacy full-back charged into the opposition penalty area, his cross was blocked at the last minute with Lupoli and Elston lurking in the middle.
Southampton responded with an early raid forward of their own and won a free-kick just outside the Arsenal penalty area. Leandre Griffet stepped up to take it but the Southampton forward got underneath the ball and sent his effort harmlessly over the bar for a goal kick.
Five minutes later, Southampton went even closer and will feel disappointed not to have scored. The lively Leon Best found himself one-on-one with Almunia following a lofted through ball from the Saints' rearguard but could only shoot straight at the former Celta Vigo stopper.
And the visitors were made to rue that miss moments later as Arsenal took the lead with Cregg the architect. Following a sustained period of pressure in Southampton's half, the Dublin-born midfielder picked out Simpson on the right-hand side of Southampton's penalty area with a chipped through ball and the England youth international brought the ball down before firing a right-foot half-volley into the far corner. That was Simpson's second goal for Banfield's side on his second start.
But Southampton, who fielded several of the Under-18 side that beat their Arsenal counterparts 2-1 on the weekend, came back strongly and ended the first half in the ascendancy. Seven minutes before the interval, the livewire Best cut inside from the right and sent a powerful shot towards goal with Almunia beaten. Fortunately for the Gunners, the crossbar stood firm and the ball ricocheted away to safety.
The Saints began the second half as they had ended the first and with just three minutes on the clock they made their pressure pay. Sean Kelly was dispossessed by Best just outside the Arsenal penalty area on the left and the Southampton forward wriggled free to square the ball for McGoldrick who tapped home from two yards.
Southampton may have taken the lead a few minutes after equalising but McGoldrick put too much on his attempted chip and the ball flew over.
Arsenal responded to Southampton's pressure in the best way possible - they put together a wonderful attacking move which narrowly failed to hand them back the lead. Nicklas Bendtner, producing another tireless display up front, skipped past his marker on the right flank before back-heeling the ball into the path of the supporting Simpson who in turn found Larsson on the edge of the box with a measured cross. The Swede immediately controlled the ball with his chest before sending a half-volley towards goal. Unfortunately for the 20-year-old midfielder, his effort was charged down and deflected away to safety.
Arsenal were now on top and Elston had a far-post header acrobatically tipped over by Paul Smith in the visitors' goal. A goal looked on the horizon for the North London side and it was not long in coming. Bendtner was the creator this time, easing past two Southampton defenders on the right before picking out his strike partner, Lupoli, with a delicate cross. The Italian made no mistake with a well-timed leap and well-placed header into the bottom corner.
Arsenal led but knew Southampton were far from beaten and so it proved. With just six minutes remaining, they equalised. A succession of corners eventually yielded a goal for the Saints as Feliciano Condessa rose highest in a crowded penalty area to head home Griffet's right-wing delivery.
Former Copenhagen striker Bendtner had scored a last-minute winner on the opening day of the season for the Reserves against West Ham at Underhill and he almost fashioned a similarly dramatic finale this time around. Picking the ball up in the centre circle, the Dane skipped past two Southampton men with ease before unleashing a spectacular 30-yard left-foot drive which seemed destined for the back of the net the moment it left his foot. Unfortunately, as Best had discovered in the first half, the crossbar was in no mood to budge and Southampton survived.
The game ended locked at 2-2 and with another 10 minutes or so it may have finished 4-4 with both sides looking menacing on the break. Woodward will have been pleased with his club's showing and he will know he has some serious talent to work with. Banfield, of course, has known about his for ages.
Jay Simpson opens the scoring
Jay takes the congratulations
Arturo Lupoli heads in the second
Lupoli and Bendtner celebrate
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