By Rob Kelly at London Colney
Arsenal Reserves were held to a 1-1 draw by Aston Villa in a well-contested clash at London Colney on Wednesday.
The visitors grabbed an early lead when Micky Drennan planted a superb header past James Shea in the third minute, but Arsenal responded well in a lively first half.
Neil Banfield’s side eventually restored parity in the 57th minute when Josh Rees fired in from close range, but despite several half chances for either side, neither could find a winner.
All the same, it was an encouraging display from Arsenal’s second string following two successive defeats, and on another day they could have come away with victory.
Banfield made four changes to the side that lost to Sunderland last week, the most notable of which was the addition of Spanish teenager Jon Toral for his Reserves debut.
Elsewhere, Shea returned to action between the posts, while Martin Angha and Kyle Ebecilio were also included. Damian Martinez, Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris dropped out after their involvements in the FA Cup Third-Round win over Leeds on Monday.
There were also second successive Reserve starts for Ryo and South Korea captain Ju Young Park as Banfield went in search of a first victory in four matches.
Villa – who knew they could go top of the table with victory at London Colney – named England Under-21 international Gary Gardner in their side following two recent appearances for the first team.
Arsenal made a disappointing start to the game when they fell behind with just three minutes on the clock. The lively Courtney Cameron found space on the left and delivered a useful cross into the box, where Drennan headed home adroitly.
It could have been worse for the hosts two minutes later but for the agility of goalkeeper Shea, who had to react smartly to palm away Gardner’s stinging 20-yard shot.
It was a confident opening from Villa, but slowly the Gunners grew in confidence as Ryo and Park came to the fore.
With 18 minutes gone, Park and Toral combined superbly to play in Ryo on the edge of the area, but his low shot was just about held by Villa keeper Calum Barrett.
Arsenal continued to press and came close to restoring parity midway through the half when Park saw a powerful shot palmed on to the post by Barrett following good work by Rhys Murphy.
By this stage, Banfield’s side were starting to take charge in a well-contested, entertaining match, but with Villa dangerous on the counter, they had to strike the right balance between attack and defence.
The second half started encouragingly for Arsenal as they pushed Villa back, but the visitors nearly doubled their lead when Shea pushed away Cameron’s shot.
Banfield's side took full advantage of that let-off, as they immediately forced the equaliser. Daniel Boateng’s initial header was saved by Barrett, with Rees bundling the ball home from close range.
It was Rees' second goal in the space of five days, having hit the winner for Steve Bould's Under-18s against Norwich on Saturday.
Both sides had their half chances as the match wore on, but in the end they had to settle for a share of the spoils.
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