U21 Premier League
Reading 2 Arsenal 2 (Neita, Eisfeld)
By Jeorge Bird @ the Madejski Stadium
Arsenal U21s were denied victory in their final fixture of 2012 by a late equaliser from Reading at the Madejski Stadium this afternoon after yet another strike from the clinical Thomas Eisfeld seemed set to hand Terry Burton’s side all three points.
In the end, the result was rather insignificant given that Arsenal have already qualified for the Elite Phase, but they still will have been disappointed having failed to play their renowned free-flowing football with as much regularity as they would have liked. They took the lead when Nigel Neita finished adroitly for his first competitive goal in nearly two years, but they were pegged back through an equaliser from the impressive Tariqe Fosu, before Eisfeld applied the finishing touch to a neat team move. A man with Arsenal connections had the final say, however, as Niall Keown, son of Arsenal legend Martin, struck a late leveller.
Arsenal were without injured duo Serge Gnabry and Nico Yennaris, but called upon the sublime attacking quartet of Eisfeld, Kristoffer Olsson, Jon Toral and Zak Ansah, who came in for Chuba Akpom up front.
subs: Akpom, Hajrovic, Fagan, Charles-Cook.
Both sides got off to a slow start as they struggled to adapt to the strange atmosphere, with a small crowd gathered inside a ground which had seen a classic cup tie the last time an Arsenal side had visited it. This fixture was nothing of the sort, but Arsenal did have the ball in the net early on when Eisfeld tucked home Hector Bellerin’s cross, but the German’s strike was correctly ruled out for offside.
Arsenal’s formation rather hindered them in the early stages, with no nominal left winger in the side. This meant that the majority of their early play was very narrow, but they still managed to create an opportunity when the rejuvenated Neita saw a dangerous cross hacked away following good work from Ansah.
Ansah was at the heart of the action early on as he made his first start of the season following a lengthy injury lay-off, but the forward couldn’t quite execute an acrobatic effort properly from Bellerin’s cross. At the other end, Martinez, who was enjoying a rather quieter time than his previous visit to the Madejski, had to gather a tame cross, before Neita squandered a good opportunity at the other end.
The attacker made amends almost immediately, however, after firing a fierce shot past Jonathan Henly. Toral spread a crossfield ball into the path of his compatriot Bellerin, who in turn found Neita lurking on the edge of the six yard box. Neita let the ball run across him before seizing control of it and finally breaking his goalscoring duck in competitive fixtures.
Reading threatened an instant reply, with Aaron Tshibola rattling the stanction, but the hosts did find the net soon after the break when Aaron Tshibola scored with a fine diving header after connecting with a cross delivered from the right flank.
Arsenal responded with Olsson seeing a shot deflected for a corner, before Ansah’s effort was parried away following Elton Monteiro’s knockdown. Monteiro himself then headed wide from Toral’s corner, before Akpom was introduced in place of Neita.
Akpom played a key role in what, for so long, seemed as if it was going to be the winner as he headed the ball on for Toral, who prodded the ball into the path of Eisfeld, with the German finishing in typical style.
Akpom then claimed a penalty after being brought down by Reading goalkeeper Henly, but the award would probably have been harsh on the hosts. Arsenal continued to pile on the pressure, with Toral’s corner striking a post, before Reading missed a chance from close range.
Ansah and Toral missed further chances as the clock ticked down, and it seemed as if they were going to hold on for the victory, especially when Martinez made two good saves late on. He was beaten, however, by Keown’s forceful header in stoppage time, despite the Argentinian stopper getting a hand to the ball.
In all, Arsenal will be frustrated to have surrendered the win late on, but the first half of the season can be looked back on with success, with the likes of Eisfeld and Gnabry having made their senior debuts, and others, such as Akpom, Isaac Hayden, who was impressive here, and Alfred Mugabo having established themselves at U21 level.
As for Eisfeld, it is a shame that he is not registered for the Champions League in addition to not being eligible for the NextGen Series, meaning that he will take this week off. Hopefully, however, he will come under consideration for the first-team in the Premier League in the near future.
Damian Martinez-7- Had little to do for so long, but was unfortunate to be beaten having just made a fantastic save late on.
Hector Bellerin-7- Provided a useful outlet down the right flank and delivered some dangerous crosses.
Elton Monteiro-6- Largely composed but couldn’t really be faulted for either goal.
Isaac Hayden-7- Some superb interceptions and a growing force at this level.
Samir Bihmoutine- 6- Worked hard down the left flank.
Alfred Mugabo-6- Another who has settled in well at this level, the first-year made some decisive interventions.
Jon Toral-7- More composed than his performance in the Youth Cup and involved in both goals.
Kris Olsson-7- So comfortable on the ball, he didn’t always find himself in the most effective areas.
Thomas Eisfeld-7- Took his goal well even though he wasn’t heavily involved otherwise.
Nigel Neita-7- A refreshingly enthusiastic performance from the forward, who scored once and could have scored another.
Zak Ansah-6- Still working his way back to full fitness but can be largely satisfied with this run-out.
Chuba Akpom (for Neita, 63)- 7- Offered more of a focal point than Ansah, and played a role in Eisfeld’s goal.
Sead Hajrovic (for Mugabo, 86)- Slotted into midfield but had too little time to make an impact.
Not used: Reice Charles-Cook, Zach Fagan.