Everton 0 Arsenal 1
With 9 rather quiet days in Arsenal terms having elapsed since our last game, the appetite for another game was ravenous. A midweek trip to the Northwest hardly ideal for those of us of the 9 to 5 persuasion, but the getting was good so there were no complaints. Terry greeted me from work at around 1.30pm on the Farringdon Road in brilliant early spring sunshine for the drive to Merseyside. Having safely collected Akhil and Young Tim from Archway, cans of red stripe were cracked to lay siege to my bladder and a compendium of cheesy Arsenal hits were inserted into the CD drive to get the mood going.
Having arrived in Liverpool at shortly before 6pm, we took a brief sojourn across Stanley Park, past Anfield and to the King Harry Pub which was strangely deserted but for our throng of Gooners. Well, the sparse population of the bar was not quite so strange when one scanned the assorted Liverpool memorabilia that littered the walls. Clearly not a pub for Bluenoses! After suitable liquid refreshment and a passable steak and gravy pie, we made our way into the East Stand Upper Tier in anticipation of the match. Arsene sprung something of a surprise by opting to play Aaron Ramsey from the left, allowing the in-form Tomas Rosicky to keep his central berth. Given the fact that Tony Hibbert is a functional right back that doesn`t offer the greatest attacking thrust. Royston Drenthe starts from the right but has license to wander. Playing Ramsey effectively allowed him to tuck in. Most of Everton`s threat comes from the left, so it was a calculated risk to leave their right flank a little open and match them in midfield.
Arsenal took advantage of a very sluggish Everton start and should have been ahead after three minutes. Rosicky floated a diagonal ball into the box to van Persie, he spotted the run of Ramsey and duly headed the ball into his path, only for the Welshman to blaze over. Ramsey has 2 goals from 50 shots in the league this season. It`s not difficult to see where he should be seeking improvement. The Gunners cut Everton open again a minute later, Sagna`s angled pass found Walcott on the right, he checked back in the box and pulled back to the onrushing Ramsey, but his shot was well blocked by Heitinga. From the subsequent corner, Arsenal took the lead. Van Persie swung in a precise delivery, Vermaelen foxed Fellaini with his movement and headed into the corner from close range. His fifth of the season. More than Torres and Carroll put together in the Premier League.
The Toffeemen looked punch drunk and the Gunners really, really ought to have finished the game off. Arteta`s deft flick found van Persie in the penalty area, he held off Baines, checked onto his left foot but found Howard equal to his effort. I`ve watched both of United`s last two league away matches at Spurs and Wolves. In both games, they were 3-0 ahead before registering five shots on target, thus making the remainders of those games very simple. Arsenal must aspire to be that clinical. Everton should have been slain before the 20 minute mark. Profligacy will cost us if we repeat it too often. Moyes needed to do something and his answer was to move Fellaini into a more advanced role and drop the ineffective Cahill into a more traditional central midfield role. Fellaini immediately caused problems with his height when he connected with Heitinga`s diagonal free kick and flicked it back into the area. Fortunately for the visitors, Leon Osman made a sow`s ear of it, tamely heading wide.
But sloppy play from Arsenal would reset the tone for the game. For my money, Alex Song does have a tendency to overelaborate and think that a game is easy when Arsenal are comfortable. He played a really poor pass from the edge of his own box which was cut out by Osman. Osman found Jelavic, who flicked to Cahill. The Australian found Royston Drenthe in acres on the right hand side of the area, who beat Szczesny with a low finish, only to be denied by an offside flag. Replays showed the assistant`s judgement had very much erred to Arsenal`s serendipity. Song was lucky that his lack of concentration wasn`t punished on this occasion.
Arsenal re-established a rhythm, despite the fact that Everton finally began to execute the harrying, pressing game you`d have expected from the off. Ramsey picked up the ball from Arteta and span a beautiful pass wide to Rosicky. The Czech, full of confidence, chested the pass down and lashed the ball goalwards from the edge of the box, but Tim Howard beat his fierce drive away. At half time, 1-0 was a pleasing scoreline but you felt disappointed the Gunners hadn`t produced a scoreline more reflective of their dominance. It was clear Moyes wouldn`t allow his side to enter the second half with the same cumbersome attitude with which they began the first.
So it proved. After 53 minutes, Baines swung in a free kick from the left, Fellaini connected but could only flick his effort straight at Szczesny. But despite increased Everton pressure, the Gunners rearguard was holding firm. Gibbs turned in his best performance of the season, Sagna won everything in the air. Koscielny and Vermaelen were their usual, unfussy selves, averting all danger. Arsenal ought to have grabbed a precious second goal when Song found Gibbs in the left channel, the left back pulled the ball back to van Persie. The Dutchman couldn`t quite wrap his foot around it and saw his effort smack the base of the post.
Everton`s left still hinted at some Arsenal chaos though. Baines won a ground tussle with Sagna and pinpointed a low cross towards Fellaini. The Moroccan looked for all the world like he would stroke home a tap in, but Vermaelen sniffed the danger and cleverly positioned himself just in front of Fellaini, allowing the ball to drift past the six yard area and out to safety. The scores from the Etihad and White Hart Lane flashed up on the scoreboard periodically and I`m not sure how helpful that was to our players, who began to sat back with other scores going our way. A premature chant of "ten points and you f****d it up!" were quickly shushed with the news that Spurs had gone behind to Stoke. We were only in the 68th minute at Goodison.
Nevertheless, Arsenal still looked dangerous on the counter. Rosicky freed Walcott who wriggled his way into the centre, shifting the ball left to Ramsey. Ramsey switched the ball back onto his right foot and aimed a shot towards Howard`s near post, but the ex United keeper beat it away. Kieran Gibbs was providing a valuable outlet on the Reds` left and again was found by Alex Song. Gibbs played a measured pass to van Persie in the channel. With Howard narrowing the angle van Persie tried to cut the ball back across goal, but Walcott did not read the intention. The home side remained a danger from set pieces and another Baines delivery- this time from a corner, was only half cleared to the edge of the Gunners` box and Royston Drenthe lashed a shot just over the bar. Arsenal brought on Gervinho for Walcott and the Ivorian nearly made the match clincher when he raced away down Everton`s left, as they committed to finding an equaliser. Gervinho cut a pass back for van Persie, who was off balance and slipped as he sliced a shot high over the bar.
But in the end, Arsenal had done enough to hold onto a valuable three points, with Spurs and Chelsea both slipping up. Having shown a pleasing penchant for late winners and the ability to come from behind, Arsenal demonstrated different, but equally pleasing qualities. Holding onto a lead in a hostile atmosphere away from home. The defence- a five man unit which is unbeaten in the games it has played this season- were simply first class with Vermaelen and Koscielny giving a masterclass in no nonsense, concentrated centre back play. Both Gibbs and Sagna were equally resolute and deserve commendation for their displays too. The only grumble would be the lack of ruthlessness when we were well in the ascendancy in the opening twenty minutes. On very few occasions in this league will a team be wantonly dreadful for a full 90 minutes. So when Everton looked punch drunk in the first half, we ought not to have given them a chance to rouse themselves. Indeed, were it not for an errant flag, we would have been punished for letting Everton off the hook. But for now, we enjoy the victory and hope the momentum continues to build. Despite a ton of roadworks on the M6 slowing our route home, it was a victory we celebrated well as we rejoined the motorway, the three points safely secured in the boot. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 7.ROSICKY (20.Djourou `88), 14.WALCOTT (27.Gervinho `79), 16.RAMSEY, 10.v.PERSIE (c). Unused: 11.A.Santos, 15.Chamberlain, 21.Fabianski, 29.Chamakh, 30.Benayoun.
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