By Richard Clarke
A superb free-kick from Robin van Persie preserved Arsenal's unbeaten record at Emirates Stadium in a dramatic and sometimes frustrating encounter against Everton on Saturday.
The visitors had stolen the lead exactly an hour earlier through Tim Cahill and, for a long time, the Australian's close-range effort looked likely to be the winner despite the home side pouring forward at every opportunity.
A combination of great defending and profligate finishing meant that desperation was just starting the set in by the time Arsenal won at free-kick 19 minutes from time.
However cometh the hour, cometh the Van. The Dutchman stepped up and curled in a stunning effort that keeper Tim Howard found too hot to handle.
The home side had a couple of half-chances to secure the winner but it is not for nothing that Everton were one of the last Premiership sides to lose their unbeaten record.
The result ended a run of five straight Premiership wins for Arsène Wenger's side. However David Moyes' men are a sturdy outfit with a clever game-plan. When you look at the Premiership table at the end of the season this might not be as disappointing result as it first appears.
Arsenal named the same side that had put in such a slick performance at Reading last Sunday. In the intervening time a much younger side had also beaten West Brom in the Carling Cup, losing Emmanuel Adebayor to a thigh injury in the process.
It added to a lengthy list of absentees: Emmanuel Eboue (knee), Lauren (knee), Abou Diaby (ankle), Julio Baptista (hamstring) and Freddie Ljungberg (calf). At least this afternoon Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini were back in the proper first-team squad after some time out.
The opening stages were all Arsenal. Tomas Rosicky has a shot blocked and Johan Djourou's foray forward was ended abruptly in the area but referee Mike Riley waved away penalty appeals.
However Everton's first adventure into the Arsenal half led to their goal. In the 11th minute, Mikel Arteta sent a corner into the area, Kolo Toure misjudged his backward header and it thumped off the chest off the onrushing Cahill. The ball bounced down nicely for the Australian midfielder to crash his shot high into the net from close range.
Rosicky looked Arsenal's most likely outlet for an equaliser. In the 13th minute he exchanged passes with Henry on the edge of the area and sidefooted a dangerous shot just over the bar. Soon afterwards, Fabregas trickled an effort wide then Henry forced a Howard to parry.
However Cahill remained a thorn in Arsenal's side. In the 21st minute, he came within inches of a second goal when Arteta's quick free-kick caught out the home defence and the free-scoring midfielder slid in.
Still, the balance of play was still in Arsenal's favour and, on the half hour, they forced a succession of corners. Rosicky went close with one and Toure won the ball well in the air from another.
In an attacking sense there was little wrong in the way Arsenal were playing. However one lapse in concentration at the back had been harshly punished. That blot was colouring the whole game and the anxiety, on and off the field, was apparent.
There was further upheaval seven minutes before the break when Justin Hoyte hobbled off with an injury. Substitute Flamini took his place at the back.
Two minutes before the break, Van Persie's deep cross was headed goalward by Rosicky at the far post. Phil Neville blocked the ball with his body, not his arm as the crowd had thought.
Arsenal upped the tempo after the restart and most of the first 15 minutes were spent camped just outside the Everton area.
A mere 40 seconds into the half, Rosicky clipped the ball to the far post and Henry met the ball with a firm downward header. It seemed destined for the far corner but Howard stretched his huge frame to fingertip the ball behind.
Almost immediately Rosicky curled a left foot shot inches over the bar and onto the top of the net. Just before the hour, Flamini flailed a couple of shots wide.
In the 60th minute itself, Rosicky went close, Fabregas forced Howard to fly once more and finally Henry clattered a header into the advertising hoardings. It was simply all Arsenal but the Everton defence was looking well-organised and sturdy.
With 24 minutes left Theo Walcott replaced Djourou as Wenger switched to a more offensive formation.
The goal followed shortly afterwards. Rosicky was fouled five yards outside the area and Van Persie thumped home the free-kick. On the balance of the play there could be no argument it was deserved.
The question now was, could Arsenal conjure up a winner? Wenger signalled his intent by bringing Jeremie Alidiere, the scorer of two goals at The Hawthorns, for Helb with 11 minutes left.
The French striker sent a scruffy header just past the far post within a couple of minutes of coming on.
Rosicky and Henry had half-chances to take all three points but the Everton defence remained solid until the end.
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Hoyte 39
- Djourou 67
- Hleb 80
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- van Persie Goal!
- Flamini 39
- Walcott 67
- Aliadiere 80
- Arteta Yellow Card
- Cahill Goal! Yellow Card
- Osman Yellow Card