By Nick Teale
It was a disappointing night for Arsenal Reserves at Underhill as Aston Villa overturned a deficit to win 2-1 after the sending off of Fran Merida.
Sanchez Watt's 31st-minute header had put the Gunners ahead but Villa scored twice in the last five minutes of the first half to take the points from 10-man Arsenal.
The hosts headed into this top-of-the-table clash with a strong line-up. Neil Banfield made five changes from the 2-0 defeat to Portsmouth three weeks ago.
Jack Wilshere was the star turn in the starting XI and he was joined in the team by Merida. Lukasz Fabianski started in goal, Thomas Cruise was in at left back while Jay Emmanuel-Thomas took his place in midfield after returning from a loan spell at Blackpool.
For the visitors England international Stuart Downing made the headlines and Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouneso were also included.
Both teams came to play attractive football at Underhill and that made for an entertaining spectacle.
The first chance of the game fell to Villa after just six minutes. Craig Gardner won the ball in midfield and drove forward into the penalty area. The Villa captain fired a shot at Fabianski but the Polish keeper held onto the shot.
Within a minute of Gardner's effort, Arsenal were presented with one of the best chances of the first half. Wilshere picked out Emmanuel-Thomas on the right side of goal but the midfielder's shot across goal rolled inches wide of the far post.
With 17 minutes on the clock a foul by Merida presented Villa with a free kick 20-yards out. It was Downing's first chance of the evening but his curling effort was well held by Fabianski.
The Arsenal keeper was called into action again shortly afterwards. Marc Albrighton, the visitors' lively right winger, juggled the ball from his left foot to his right and powered a shot at goal from close range but once again Fabianski thwarted Villa.
After 31-minutes Arsenal took the lead. Gardner fouled Wilshere 25-yards out and Merida delivered the ball to the back post. Watt rose to meet it and headed home is fifth goal in seven second-string games.
However, just four minutes after the goal Banfield's side were reduced to 10 men. Having claimed to have been struck by the hand of Delph moments earlier, Merida had a second altercation with the Villa midfielder.
After a scuffle between players from both sides was calmed down, referee Amphlett produced a red card for Merida to the surprise of the Underhill crowd. They were further irritated when Delph was only booked.
It wasn't long until Villa took advantage of the extra man. Four minutes before the break the league leaders got their equaliser and in first-half stoppage time they took the lead.
The first was a tap in at the far post for Albrighton after a well-constructed move by Villa. The second came from a low cross, the ball trickling through to Gardner at the back post who slotted the ball across goal and into the bottom-left corner of Fabianski's goal.
The second half was naturally quieter for Arsenal. The formation didn't change too much. Banfield had opted for a 4-4-1-1 with Emmanuel-Thomas playing just behind striker Watt. With the red card Watt switched to right midfield, alternating with Emmanuel-Thomas as the lone striker.
Emmanuel-Thomas went close with 20 minutes to go. In an effort similar to his in the first half, the midfielder sent a shot across goal but saw it go agonisingly wide.
In the 80th minute Albrighton had an opportunity to seal the points but Fabianski comfortably held his connecting header from Barry Bannan's cross.
Arsenal pressed in the final 10 minutes but struggled to produce any clear-cut chances to take a point from the game. No doubt they will look back on this fixture and rue the dismissal of Merida. But as the league table stands, Aston Villa are five points ahead of the Gunners, who have a game in hand.
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