U21 Premier League- Game 1
Stoke City 2 (Thomas 60, Waring 77) Arsenal 2 (Eisfeld 32, 47)
Arsenal U21s surrendered a two goal lead to eventually draw 2-2 away to Stoke City in the opening game of their league campaign. The Gunners, who endured a horrendous pre-season, started well and were 2-0 up just after the break through a brace from the prolific Thomas Eisfeld, but a strike from Adam Thomas, who latched onto a mistake from Daniel Boateng, and a penalty from George Waring saw the points shared.
Coach Steve Gatting had a rather small group of players to choose from, with Gedion Zelalem, Isaac Hayden and Serge Gnabry all being left out, suggesting that the trio will be involved in the first-team’s trip to face Fenerbahce later this week.
Hector Bellerin and Damian Martinez were also absent, whilst with a further four players on the treatment table and three out on loan, Gatting had to call upon several members of the U18 side that started their season with a 2-1 win over Liverpool on Friday.
Deyan Iliev, Tafari Moore, Stefan O’Connor and Glen Kamara all made their competitive debuts at this level, but there were still some more experienced faces on show in Chuba Akpom, Eisfeld, Kristoffer Olsson and Boateng.
subs: Maitland-Niles (for Jeffrey, 83) Not used: Huddart, Fagan, Uade, Jebb, .
Iliev had to be alert to claim a Stoke header in the early stages of the game, which will certainly have been of great benefit to the goalkeeper’s confidence after he conceded an avalanche of goals during a torturous pre-season programme.
Arsenal struggled to implement their free-flowing, passing game on a difficult pitch, but were fortunate that the referee waved play on when James Alabi went down under Boateng’s challenge in the penalty area.
O’Connor, who has impressed with his calm demeanour during his outings for the club thus far, then made a vital last-ditch interception with former Everton youngster George Waring lurking in close proximity following a dangerous cross by Florent Cuvelier.
Alabi then saw a shot deflected over the crossbar as Stoke continued to dominate during the first-half, but Arsenal responded with their first clear-cut chance of the game; Anthony Jeffrey seizing possession and using his blistering pace to surge towards goal before seeing his shot parried for a corner.
That chance seemed to inject Arsenal with some much-needed confidence, and, from that point onwards, they started to carve out more opportunities. First Alex Iwobi, who impressed with his trickery, almost slid in the on-rushing Akpom, then the winger found Eisfeld, who latched onto the ball and fired home a ferocious effort to maintain his impressive record of a goal every two games for the second-string since joining from Borussia Dortmund.
Stoke attempted to mount an instant fight-back, through the one senior player on show in Maurice Edu, but the midfielder, who has been capped 45 times by the United States, saw his shot repelled by Iliev.
Arsenal could have doubled their advantage before the break, but Eisfeld shot just wide after good work from Kamara and Olsson.
The second goal would come just two minutes after the re-start, however, and it was entirely unsurprising that it was Eisfeld who provided the finishing touch once again. On this occasion it was a sublime individual effort from the German, who carefully lifted the ball over goalkeeper Dale Eve from 20 yards out to make it 2-0.
At that point it seemed as if Arsenal’s lead was only going to increase further, with Jeffrey almost finding the net, before Olsson tested Eve with a well-taken free-kick.
Stoke, much to Arsenal’s surprise, then pulled a goal back entirely against the run of play with Thomas capitalising on a weak back pass from Boateng before beating Iliev with ease to halve the deficit.
The momentum was now very much with the home side, with Waring heading wide when well placed, but Jeffrey was always a threat on the counter-attack for Arsenal and the winger saw a shot of his own saved before teeing up Olsson, who suffered the same misfortune in front of goal.
Then came the moment that decided the game, with Iliev bringing down Waring in the penalty area. The referee pointed straight to the spot, but some Arsenal players complained about Olsson being fouled in the build-up to the incident.
Waring was in unforgiving mood, however, and confidently dispatched the penalty to draw Stoke level at 2-2. In an entertaining game, Akpom almost had the final say with a late shot, but Eve was equal to it.
Arsenal will be deeply disappointed to have surrendered a seemingly comfortable two-goal lead in such circumstances, but, on the positive side, this was a much improved team performance from the majority of those demonstrated in pre-season.