By Declan Taylor
Luke Ayling squeezed home a last-gasp header to settle this enthralling friendly at Sincil Bank on Thursday night.
The Gunners XI had led 2-0 thanks to goals either side of half time from Gilles Sunu and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. However, two Lincoln goals in quick succession late in the second half looked to have secured the League Two side an unlikely draw.
But, with little over a minute remaining, the 17-year-old Ayling crept in at the back-post to nod home Arsenal XI's richly-deserved winner.
With the Gunners’ seniors flying to Austria a matter of hours before kick-off, it was an almost entirely teenage XI that lined up at Sincil Bank – in fact it was only Arsenal XI's captain on the night, Jay Simpson, who had enjoyed his 20th birthday.
A few injuries in the youth ranks, most notably to Kyle Bartley and Emmanuel Frimpong, gave some even younger youngsters a crack of the whip. Academy defender Daniel Boateng came in at right-back with Ignasi Miquel partnering Ayling in the centre.
Further forward the two most ‘experienced’ Gunners, Nacer Barazite and Simpson, led the line.
Both strikers enjoyed useful loan spells last season and the duo were easily Lincoln’s biggest problem in the early stages. The Dutchman twice shot narrowly wide within the first 10 minutes while Simpson thudded a shot straight at Rob Burch after slick build-up play from Sunu and Sanchez Watt.
The hosts had to wait until the 11th minute for their first sight of James Shea’s goal. However, when bruising striker Paul Connor muscled himself an opening five yards out, his scuffed effort was easily claimed by the keeper.
Arsenal’s Youth Cup strike partnership of Watt and Sunu may have been occupying the flanks, but they were involved in some early chances themselves. Lincoln centre-half Danny Kone had to be alert to hack Watt’s goal-bound strike off the line in the 12th minute before Sunu stung Burch’s hands from 20 yards minutes later.
With Arsenal XI enjoying the lion’s share of possession, chances were coming and going seemingly by the minute. Barazite tried his luck from distance at least five times but Burch was always equal to his efforts.
However it was a moment of hesitation from the keeper that allowed Sunu to open the scoring two minutes before the break.
The Frenchman surged out of his own half, burst past a despairing challenge from Janos Kovacs and lifted a delightful finish over the advancing keeper from 20 yards to secure a deserved half-time advantage.
And the interval did nothing to quell Arsenal XI's threat with the first 10 minutes of the second half spent almost entirely in Lincoln’s half.
However it was the home side who really should have scored the next goal. First Hone forced a miraculous save from Shea with a point-blank header before skipper Ricky Butcher fired straight at the keeper’s legs after Jamie Clarke’s cut-back.
But, within a minute of the captain’s chance, the Gunners struck again. Substitute Conor Henderson picked out the run of Emmanuel-Thomas and the towering midfielder fired an angled strike across Burch and into the bottom corner. It was a slightly cruel blow for the home side but nothing less than Arsenal deserved.
Unperturbed, Lincoln pressed on and halved the arrears 16 minutes from time through Aaron Brown. The ex-Swindon winger swung in a teasing free-kick which evaded everyone and flashed past the unsighted Shea.
And the Imps weren’t done there.
With 10 minutes left on the clock, striker Chris Fagan drew the League Two side level with a curling 25-yard strike of Premier League quality. Finally the young Gunners had a real game on their hands. And despite a few tired legs on both sides, the closing stages were played at a frantic pace with the Gunners, crucially, doing most of the forward-thinking.
It seemed to be heading for a draw when Oguzhan Ozyakup then Emmanuel-Thomas went close in the last few minutes but, with only seconds left, there was Ayling to nod Arsenal XI's winner.
Next for the youngsters is Maidenhead United on Tuesday, July 28.
Referee: Darren Deadman
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