Akpom lifts Arsenal with late tally against Urawa

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

A late defensive mix-up denied Urawa Reds an exhibition-match draw with Arsenal as the Premier League heavyweights ran out 2-1 winners on Friday night.

Arsenal took the field at Saitama Stadium with a strong lineup featuring England internationals Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, but the Gunners had to wait until manager Arsene Wenger had shuffled his pack at halftime before substitute Lukas Podolski hit the opener in the 49th minute.

Yuki Abe lashed home an equalizer in the 59th minute to put a determined Urawa back into contention, but a defensive blunder by Mitsuru Nagata gifted Chuba Akpom an 82nd-minute winner to give Arsenal a J. League clean sweep on its Asian tour having beaten Nagoya Grampus on Monday.

“It was a very interesting game with a lot of commitment, and overall I think Urawa Reds played very well,” said Wenger. “We missed many chances, but it was good preparation for us.

“Urawa Reds are a very compact team who build up the game very well and counterattack very well. They are a good side.”

Japan international Ryo Miyaichi was unable to find the target after coming on as a halftime substitute for Arsenal, but the 20-year-old is confident he is gaining strength all the time having missed practically all of last season through injury.

“In the second half it was a very tough game,” said Miyaichi, who scored in Monday’s 3-1 win over Grampus. “Urawa Reds are a very good team. I have to stand up and make my appearances count. I wasn’t able to show what I am capable of, but my fitness levels are improving and that bodes well for the start of the season.”

Walcott almost gave Arsenal a 9th-minute lead when he hit the post after a slaloming run at the Urawa defense, before Marcio Richardes cannoned a shot over the bar from close range moments later.

Walcott and Olivier Giroud both went close in the space of a minute midway through the first half — the latter with a clever chip that narrowly missed its target — and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also hit the crossbar from the edge of the area as Arsenal began to turn the screw.

Tomoya Ugajin gave Reds a confidence boost to take into halftime when his curling shot drew a fine save out of goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, but it was a different Arsenal that took the field after the break as Wenger rang the changes with five substitutions.

It did not take long for the replacements to have an impact. Aaron Ramsey broke down the right before playing a pass into Walcott, who teed the ball up with a delicate touch for Podolski to hammer home.

Walcott failed to add another when goalkeeper Norihiro Yamagishi got the best of a one-on-one in the 53rd minute, and the miss would cost the visitors dearly as Abe leveled the score just over five minutes later. Yosuke Kashiwagi swung in a corner that deflected back off Daisuke Nasu, and Abe was on hand to volley it past Fabianski.

Oxlade-Chamberlain struck the post and Podolski scooped a shot over the bar as Arsenal looked to hit back, before Akpom picked Nagata’s pocket to sweep home the winner with eight minutes left to play.

“Overall, Japanese players are getting better always and Japanese football is very strong,” said Wenger.