By Matt Fortune
Arsenal Reserves capped a superb season with a workmanlike performance against Reserve League South champions Aston Villa on Tuesday night.
Kieran Gibbs snatched the latest of levellers with practically the last kick of the game, cancelling out substitute Nathan Delfouneso's effort just before time.
The game's major talking point, except for the pounding rain that soaked the occasion throughout, came just before the interval when Italian stopper Vito Mannone was dismissed for a professional foul.
There were several noteworthy inclusions in Neil Banfield's squad. Jay Thomas, so impressive in his last two outings, retained his place but reverted to centre back in place of international-bound Havard Nordtveit. Kerrea Gilbert also came into the side, as did Gibbs after a successful loan spell with Norwich City.
The midfielder has a sprinkling of first-team appearances to his name. An eye-catching performance here might just thrust him into the manager's thoughts for the final couple of Premier League matches.
For Villa, the chief tormentors of the Under-18s from Saturday's Academy Play-Off Semi-Final match were rested. Only Shane Lowry, Chris Herd and Barry Bannan started both games. Delfouneso and Harry Forrester sat ominously on the bench. In goal for the Villains was a familiar face - Stuart Taylor played 18 times for the Gunners during a spell that ended in 2005.
The evening was to end with the presentation of the Reserve League South trophy to the hosts. They could not be denied that, but a happy ending, they certainly could.
Attractive football was at a premium early on. Armand Traore fizzed in a low cross from the left that eluded everybody, and Moustapha Salifou dallied too long when placed outside the box.
Having said that, Arsenal looked bright. Nacer Barazite dropped deep on a couple of occasions to good effect and Gibbs worked diligently to assert some sort of influence on midfield.
Bannan whipped a free-kick just over Mannone's cross bar in what was the first effort on target. It had taken 35 minutes.
But the lack of goalmouth action should not be confused for lethargy. The rain was relentless and probably the worst conditions these youngsters had encountered for quite some time. Or, in truth, are likely to in the future.
Errors were inevitable and Arsenal were thankful that such lack of fortune befell Lowry. The defender failed to judge the skiddy surface and scooped over from inside the six-yard box following a corner.
But then the game turned. Three minutes before the interval Thomas lost his footing at the crucial time allowing Sam Williams a free run towards goal. Mannone's starting position was fine but he too slipped slightly and in a desperate attempt to atone, felled the Villa striker a few yards from the edge of his box. A red card seemed harsh with white shirts hounding Williams but the referee had little hesitation. Rui Fonte was the man to make way for sub keeper Wojciech Szczesny.
Arsenal had defeated Villa in the reverse rubber back in November. They played with a man light for the majority of the second half then and were going to have to do the same this time. They coped admirably.
On the hour substitute Jack Wilshere called Taylor into action with a teasing low drive that the stopper smothered well. Bannan shot wide when perhaps he should have done better from the left channel and Williams headed over from a corner.
It was no coincidence that as the rain abated, chances increased. But most, if not all, were falling to the hosts.
Failure to deal with a succession of corners should have led to the opener but several Villa players were culpable of wastefulness. It couldn't last.
With less than five minutes remaining, a loose ball at the back post was swept back into the danger zone by Herd allowing the unmarked Delfouneso to poke home from close range.
Arsenal tried to respond but the tough conditions had taken their toll. It was fitting in a match full of slips and skids that one created the equaliser. Herd lost his footing about 40-yards from goal giving Gibbs the chance at surging into the heart Villa's final third. With only Taylor to beat, the 18-year-old lashed the ball assertively into the bottom left hand corner. It was a finish that oozed confidence.
Seconds later the final whistle blew. The curtain had come down on a wonderful season for the Gunners second-string. They finish the campaign with a seven-match undefeated record.
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