Arsenal 2 Everton 1
It felt like the first game I have attended in a while whereby I was not 100% confident of victory prior to kick off. Everton are as tough a proposition as we have faced since Manchester City pimped their bus on the edge of the Ashburton Grove penalty area. With the odd exception, Everton rarely give us anything other than a tough game and they are a team I hold a great deal of respect for. That respect is undiminished today and, if anything, reaffirmed. "A nervy 2-1 win" my erstwhile prediction in the Tavern. Arsene made ten changes to the side, the most eye catching of which was the decision to have Deputy Rosicky filling Nasri`s snakeskin boots, as opposed to Sheriff Arshavin. But given Arshavin completed 90 minutes of a match in which the Gunners went down to ten only 48 hours previously made that an informed choice.
Arsenal looked blighted with ring rust in the opening exchanges and Everton are not the sort of side that one should expose weakness to. Marshalled by the excellent Marouane Fellaini, Everton were allowed to assert their robust game plan. Incidentally, I think Fellaini`s performance to be the best I have seen from an opposing player this season. He was everywhere and everywhere he went, he usually won the ball too. The stats say Arsenal won 53% of the duels in the match- I would wager Fellaini was responsible for more than half of Everton`s 47% slice. The referee earned an early grumble from those next to me by booking Jack Wilshere inside four minutes for the most innocuous of fouls. "He`s set a precedent now, he`s gonna have to book everyone for everything," was Jon`s remark. We didn`t even know the half of it at that point! Everton and Arsenal did exchange some fouls that gave the game a niggly, if not over aggressive undercurrent. Everton had a few digs, we had a few digs. Nobody executed any leg breakers.
But Arsenal did eventually come close to breaching Everton`s defence; Rosicky cleverly turned the ball round a tight corner for van Persie in the area. With Phil Neville at his back *shudders*, van Persie waited for reinforcements to arrive before a delicate back heel found the run of Fabregas. The presence of Heitinga was just enough to put Cesc off and he dragged the shot wide. Everton would not surrender a single inch and it was clearly going to be a game where Arsenal would have to fight tooth and nail for any kind of result; Song won a 50-50 with Heitinga on the edge of the Everton area, the ball squirmed loose to Walcott but he shot straight at Tim Howard`s legs. But just as the Gunners were searching out their groove, Everton slammed them into a rut. Seamus Coleman attempted a chip forward to Luis Saha in the area; who was a bus rode offside. Koscielny attempted to clear, but could not reach to get enough purchase on the ball. The ball travelled to Saha and assistant referee Lee Childs amazingly, did not put his flag up. Saha buried the chance to the utter dismay of the home crowd. The replay of the goal on the big screens deepened the ire and even referee Lee Mason was moved to have a word with his assistant. "You sure love?" The issue here is not whether Saha was standing in an offside position, but whether Koscielny`s touch means a second phase of play is enacted, making Saha onside. I would argue clearly not as the ball ended up absolutely where Coleman had attempted to put it when Saha was offside. Had Coleman pinged an accurate shot at goal from the same position and Szczesny beat it out to Saha, the flag would have gone up. It`s a point of subjectivity, but I think the linesman got this one badly wrong.
The protests were ultimately in vain, the goal stood and Arsenal were tasked with turning the game around. Everton did what most teams try to do to Arsenal, squeeze the game and make it narrow and force the wingers inside. With Fellaini and Rodwell in the centre, the Gunners simply couldn`t find an inch to get their passing game going. For a change, Arsenal actually looked at their most dangerous from set pieces; a wicked van Persie delivery was flicked on by Djourou and just missed Koscielny`s advances at the back post. At that point, I noted that Howard had nobody on his posts from the corner. A mistake he would later be punished for. This was the only genuine chance Arsenal created for the remainder of the half. Song collected what looked like a dead leg in a collision with Szczesny and Koscielny. He had to be replaced by Diaby at half time; I didn`t necessarily think this to be a bad thing if it meant we could match up Everton`s physical midfield presence. As it happened, Moyes appeared to drop Rodwell back in defensive midfield with Arteta playing behind Saha. This rather isolated Saha, who had basically given Djourou an absolutely torrid time in the first half.
Arsenal were pressing but finding it nigh on impossible to breach the blue Maginot line ahead of them. Mason continued with his ridiculous attempt at officiating a football match. Rosicky slightly mistiming a challenge and tapping the ankle of Rodwell eighty yards from Everton`s goal is a booking, Heitinga gets hauled down on the edge of the area as he lined up a shot- not apparently. (Don`t take this as a dig at Everton, but the laughable inability to properly apply the rules). But the fact was, Everton looked unbreachable. Van Persie stung Howard`s palms with a long range strike, whilst Clichy threatened a rare goal with a jinking run and shot that was eventually blocked, but Arsenal needed a strong dose of inspiration. Arsene called for Bendtner and Arshavin from the bench. "Now`s the time to give us that something special" I muttered to myself under my breath, referring to the mercurial Russian. He answered my mumbled prayer. Fabregas received the ball thirty five yards from the Everton goal and attempted to lob the ball over the top of the Toffees defence. Rodwell stretched every sinew of his neck to head the ball out, but could only succeed in glancing it into the Russian`s path. He demonstrated commendable calm as he kept his eye on the ball and put the ball into the net on the full toss. Arsenal were back in the game.
With the wind in their sails, it wasn`t long before the Gunners dragged themselves kicking and screaming into the lead. Van Persie sent a well flighted corner kick to the back post, where Laurent Koscielny rose like the proverbial salmon to head the ball into the net past Tim Howard`s unstewarded post. Arsenal were in the lead and a scorned and therefore rumbustuous crowd lifted the roof off the stadium. Everton tried to edge back into the game with some balls into the box, but Arsenal manfully held on. Theo Walcott had needed to go off, but stayed on and even managed to plough through the pain barrier to run the ball into the corner. Soldiers were being wounded, yet refused to drop. Everybody loves it when we turn up and tan a team`s behinds with a display of pornographic football, but nights like last night really give you belief in the team. Everton did not allow us one single inch for one single second. Every single ball was contested ferociously. It was a cracking match. But last night wasn`t about our ability to pass and swagger, it was our ability to compete and bear teeth. We gave as good as we got and used the injustice felt for the first goal as motivation rather than excuse. Anyone who thinks Arsenal can`t win ugly needs to get themselves a recording of this game, I know I`m going to sit and watch the whole 90 minutes at the next available opportunity. The post match furore is scarcely worth commenting on, save to say Wenger would not have been given the same liberty by the press had the roles been reversed. This space isn`t for discussing Moyes` lip trembling bitching, pissing people off is something champions have to do once in a while. If Arsenal keep showing this sort of fortitude, they`ve got as good a shot as anyone at earning that anointment.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG (2.Diaby H/T), 19.WILSHERE (52.Bendtner `69), 14.WALCOTT, 7.ROSICKY (23.Arshavin `62), 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 1.Almunia, 27.Eboue, 28.Gibbs, 29.Chamakh.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA