By Chris Harris
Tomas Rosicky pulled on an Arsenal shirt for the first time in 18 months as his team kicked off their pre-season programme with a draw at Barnet.
The Czech international hobbled off during an FA Cup tie against Newcastle on January 26, 2008 and has overcome plenty of obstacles on his long road back to fitness. The 45 minutes he got under his belt at Underhill was the best news of the day.
The result wasn’t so heartwarming - although that hardly matters at this time of the year.
Sanchez Watt set up Andrey Arshavin for the opening goal three minutes before the break but Ismail Yakubu headed an equaliser on the stroke of half-time. Nacer Barazite, one of 10 half-time substitutes, restored Arsenal’s lead in spectacular fashion but Elliott Charles struck with eight minutes left to earn Barnet a creditable draw.
Rosicky’s return was the big news before kick-off but he was not the only mouth-watering name in the Arsenal line-up. New signing Thomas Vermaelen made his debut, William Gallas returned from his own lengthy lay-off and Arshavin also started.
There was plenty for a packed Underhill to savour in the July sunshine.
This trip to Barnet has been a staple of Arsenal’s pre-season diet for the past decade and it gives Wenger’s side the opportunity to shake off some summer cobwebs before the hard work starts at their training camp in Austria.
Arsenal, sporting their new blue away kit, started briskly. Arshavin dragged a shot past the near post inside 90 seconds and then forced Will Viner into a save from the acutest of angles. Watt tried to snaffle the rebound but his effort was blocked.
Rosicky, captain for the day, was heavily involved in the opening exchanges and, needless to say, his first touch was greeted with a huge roar. Most of the 5,099 crowd craved a goal from the Czech and were almost sated when Arshavin slipped Rosicky in with a deft pass inside the box. Viner rushed out to smother.
The Barnet keeper was by far the busier.
After eight minutes Rosicky found Wilshere on the left and the 17-year-old whipped a ball across to Watt. His first touch took him inside his marker but Viner pushed away the striker’s fierce effort.
After a frenetic first 15 minutes, the pace eased off – hardly surprising given the time of year.
Barnet, full of endeavour, started to compete. Yannick Bolasie, quick and tricky, was their most fruitful outlet.
Paul Furlong, 40, was his very senior partner up front but the former Chelsea striker gave Vermaelen a good battle. The Dutchman won’t meet a more experienced opponent this season and he stood up well to his first test in English football. Strong in the air, composed on the ball – Vermaelen looks the part.
The chances dried up as the tempo dropped but, having regained their breath, Arsenal stepped up a gear towards the end of the half.
Watt emerged from two sliding challenges to release Wilshere on the left six minutes before the break. He cut inside and waited for support before finding Arshavin. The Russian teed up Rosicky but his left-foot strike flew wide.
Three minutes later, Arsenal were ahead.
This time Watt raced down the left and he cleverly delayed his cross before putting the ball on a plate for Arshavin at the far post. The Russian finished high into the net from close range.
You might not have fancied Barnet to bounce back from that but they conjured up an equaliser with the last touch of the half. Danny Hart whipped in an inviting free-kick from the left and centre-back Yakubu climbed highest to power a header beyond Manuel Almunia.
As expected it was all-change at half-time – with the exception of Vermaelen.
He stayed on for the second half and was joined by 10 new players: Craig Eastmond, Luke Ayling, Jay Simpson, Barazite, Thomas Cruise, Gilles Sunu, Francis Coquelin, Conor Henderson and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. Early evidence that Wenger is already building a team around his new signing!
It took just four minutes for Arsenal to regain the lead and they did it in some style.
Barazite, back from a season-long loan at Derby, was forced away from the penalty area by a crowded Barnet defence but found space to arrow a shot into the top corner from 20 yards. Remarkably it was the third year in succession that Barazite has scored in this fixture.
Emmanuel-Thomas clipped a free-kick just over as the young Gunners asserted themselves but, once again, a frantic opening spell was followed by a more mundane passage of play.
Hart raised the temperature with a thumping shot from 25 yards which stung Mannone’s hands and Arsenal responded in kind as Emmanuel-Thomas played in Simpson, but .his goal-bound effort was blocked.
Arsenal looked in control but they were pegged back again with eight minutes left when Charles popped up inside the box to find Mannone’s bottom corner.
Emmanuel-Thomas squandered a chance for an instant riposte when he slid the ball just wide after breaking clear of the Barnet back line.
And so Arsenal had to settle for a draw, but that was not the story today. Welcome back, Tomas Rosicky.
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