By Giuseppe Muro at Old Trafford Thomas Vermaelen returned to action after more than seven months on the sidelines as the Reserves recorded a creditable 0-0 draw with Manchester United on Thursday. The Belgian defender captained Neil Banfield’s side and completed 90 minutes as the second string shared the spoils with an opposition packed with Premier League pedigree in their final fixture of the regular season. Whether we will see him in the first-team again this season is unclear - but having the powerful centre half back in an Arsenal shirt for the first time since August was a welcome sight for everyone associated with the Club. A commanding presence throughout at the heart of the Arsenal back-line, Vermaelen organised, read the game expertly and looked assured alongside Daniel Boateng. This point in the North West means Arsenal finish their campaign at the top of the Reserve League South table leaving Chelsea needing three points from their remaining two games to snatch the title away from north London. As Arsene Wenger’s first-team have done here twice this season, once in the Premier League and then again in the FA Cup, Arsenal controlled possession in a first half that saw neither side create much in the final third. Vermaelen remained relatively untested but was on hand to make a few crucial interceptions following crosses from Wes Brown, a Champions League winner and full England international, who was playing at right back. Gabriel Obertan looked surprised when the 25-year-old came from nowhere to powerfully win a header from Ben Amos’ punt downfield. Banfield and the Arsenal players did not. Chuks Aneke, returning from the ankle knock that saw him miss the Dallas Cup, pulled the strings alongside Oguzhan Ozyakup and Kyle Ebecilio in midfield but neither goal was really threatened in the opening half hour. Darren Fletcher, a regular in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, was making his first outing since early March but he struggled to deal with the Arsenal trio. The Scotland international was replaced at the break. James Shea, back in the starting line-up in place of Jens Lehmann, saved well from Obertan who tried to squeeze the ball home from a tight angle after out-muscling Boateng. The travelling bench went up when Jeremie Aliadiere tumbled inside the penalty area but referee Warren Joyce decided to book the Frenchman for diving. There were no real complaints from the striker, who was continuing at the head of the attack following his goal against Sunderland. It remained all-square at the end of the first period and the game followed a similar pattern at the start of the second half. Arsenal probed but it was United who would create the first openings. Boateng blocked bravely when Oberten let fly after Shea split a low Oliver Norwood free kick and then the impressive Norwood weaved past two defenders before Vermaelen stepped across to win the ball. Ozyakup had Amos at full stretch when he left fly from range and his fizzing, low effort forced the goalkeeper to superbly tip the ball wide of his left post. In an eerily empty Old Trafford, the stadium lacked atmosphere and that seemed to transfer to the players on the pitch. It was all a bit quiet. Then, with 15 minutes to go, Arsenal had what looked like a clear penalty waved away by referee Joyce. An errant back-pass gifted the ball to Aliadiere inside the area. He rounded Amos and was hauled down before he could tap into the empty net. Surprisingly, the linesman had his flag up and the referee pointed for offside. Alan Clayton clearly didn’t see that it was a United player who knocked the ball back towards his own goal. Shea produced a world-class save to tip a late header onto the crossbar and that proved to be the final act. Tougher challenges no doubt lie ahead for Vermaelen but this was the next test on his road to recovery. One he passed unscathed and with flying colours.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.