By Nik Brumsack at the Weaver Stadium
Arsenal kicked off their Under-21 Premier League campaign with a deserved point at Stoke City on Monday night.
On an evening where they produced a terrific display after the break, the Gunners may be slightly disappointed to have left Cheshire with just a point after a sublime Thomas Eisfeld brace had given them a two-goal lead.
With no fewer than nine members of the squad featuring for the under-18s on Friday, this was a performance brimming with character. If Steve Gatting's side can continue to showcase aspects of the play on show at the Weaver Stadium throughout the season, they could well be in for a successful campaign.
Gatting made five changes from the side that started last week’s final pre-season game at Colchester United, with Leander Siemann, Stefan O’Connor, Danny Boateng, Glen Kamara and Deyan Iliev coming into the team.
The hosts also named a young side, though they were bolstered by the experience of United States international Maurice Edu and Belgium Under-21 midfielder Florent Cuvelier.
Both sides found it difficult to settle on what was a difficult playing surface and it took 20 minutes for the first chance of the evening to arrive.
When it did, O’Connor was alert to get his body in front of George Waring’s effort after Cuvelier had whipped in a dangerous cross from the right.
Not 60 seconds later, Boateng chased back the lively James Alabi to deflect the winger’s powerful shot off target.
But those glimpses of goal aside, the Gunners more than held their own, patiently maneuvering the ball across the pitch without really threatening the Stoke goal.
They took the lead just after the half-hour mark thanks to a goal of real quality.
Eisfeld had brought the curtain down on the 2012/13 campaign when he lashed home from 25 yards against Liverpool in May. The German started this season in similar fashion, firing a 20-yard shot right into the stanchion after Kamara and Alex Iwobi had engineered a breakaway.
Arsenal were noticeably growing in confidence but were heavily indebted to an excellent Iliev double save just five minutes after going in front.
Edu was played through the middle but the goalkeeper stood up long enough to palm the shot away before bravely diving on James Thomas’ close-range rebound.
The lead was nearly doubled on the stroke of half-time. Kamara picked out captain Kris Olsson and his pull back was beyond Akpom but picked out the onrushing Eisfeld, who diverted the ball inches wide.
Having had to defend for large parts of the first half, Arsenal began the second on the front foot - and were instantly rewarded.
A spell of possession around the penalty area culminated with Iwobi’s loose pass being intercepted. But Kamara quickly won the ball back and laid it off to Eisfeld, who dinked a shot over Dale Eve and in from just outside the box.
He should have had his hat-trick soon after but this time he blazed over from 12 yards after Olsson’s perfectly-weighted through ball had carved the defence open.
It was all Arsenal, with the hosts unable to live with the growing impact of Akpom and Eisfeld in attack.
The duo combined to set up Iwobi, whose deflected shot forced Eve into a good stop, before the goalkeeper tipped Olsson’s free-kick wide soon after.
But against the run of play, Stoke halved the deficit on the hour. Boateng’s backpass stuck in the pitch, allowing Thomas to nip in and slide the ball past Iliev.
The game was becoming increasingly open. Waring powered a header wide at one end, Olsson saw a close-range shot pawed wide at the other.
With the game approaching the latter stages, the hosts drew level from the spot.
Edu set Waring clear and, racing from his goal, Iliev could only upend the striker, who dusted himself down to send the goalkeeper the wrong way after the referee had awarded the penalty.
Still, Arsenal kept coming. They could have sealed the three points their second-half performance had perhaps merited but, after turning Mason Watkins-Clark in knots, Akpom’s shot was tipped agonisingly wide by the busy Eve.
In the dying seconds, Thomas could have won it for the hosts, but Iliev got enough on his powerful drive to divert it away from goal.
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