By Chris Harris
Robin van Persie kept his incredible run going as Arsenal snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat at Goodison Park.
Tim Cahill's second-half header looked like condemning the Gunners to their first reverse in nine games but Van Persie fired home a thunderous effort in stoppage time to salvage a point. Astonishingly, the in-form Dutchman has scored - or assisted - every Arsenal goal in the month of January.
Van Persie's late intervention put a rather more positive slant on a largely frustrating night. The Dutchman went close to breaking the deadlock in the first half while Denilson wasted a glorious opportunity in the second half but Everton more than matched their visitors and will feel hard done by after letting their advantage slip so late.
But Arsène Wenger’s side won't care about that. They now trail Aston Villa by five points in the race for a Champions League place - while Manchester United are eight points clear of Arsenal in top spot - but this point could prove valuable in the context of the season. Few sides will win here between now and May.
Wenger made six changes from the team which started Sunday's stalemate at Cardiff. Almunia, William Gallas, Denilson, Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Adebayor were all promoted from the bench while Gael Clichy returned from suspension. The major casualty was Kolo Toure with Johan Djourou chosen to partner Gallas at the heart of defence. There was a notable milestone too, Bacary Sagna racking up his 50th Premier League appearance.
Before kick-off there was much talk of unbeaten runs - neither team had not lost for eight games in all competitions. But this would be a serious test of both side's credentials. For Arsenal, grinding out results against Bolton, Portsmouth and Hull was all very well, but winning at Goodison Park was a step up in class. Everton, for their part, had been tagged as 'title contenders' by Wenger but would need to improve on a record of just three wins in 29 games against the traditional 'Big Four' to live up to their billing.
Arsenal started brightly. They were busy and bustling and barely relinquished possession in the first five minutes. However they had nothing to show for it bar a fierce Van Persie free kick which deflected wide off Cahill.
The home crowd were cowed into silence but Everton soon got a foothold in the game and, more specifically, Arsenal's right flank. Cahill, Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar regularly ventured over to that side of the pitch to outnumber Sagna and Denilson, exploiting their man advantage and Fellaini's height advantage.
It was a profitable ploy. After eight minutes, Leighton Baines raced to the byline and crossed low for Fellaine at the near post. Gallas smuggled the ball behind as the Belgian sized up a shot. Then Mikel Arteta's corner flicked off Phil Jagielka's head and bounced wide. It sparked a long spell of Everton pressure with Arteta dictating proceedings from a 'quarter-back' position in front of his own back four.
Arsenal, after their promising start, were struggling to get Samir Nasri and Van Persie on the ball. They reverted to Plan B at times - going long to Adebayor - but Jagielka and Joleon Lescott nullified the big man's threat. Everton had only conceded two goals in seven weeks - both to Liverpool's Steven Gerrard - and you could see why.
Diaby and Nasri picked up bookings for careless challenges but the visitors slowly improved and, after weathering the Everton storm, they finished the first half strongly. After 32 minutes Nasri sped past Tony Hibbert to the left byline and crossed towards Van Persie. The Dutchman stretched but could not quite wrap his 'chocolate leg' around the ball and his effort bounced wide. Seconds later Adebayor stormed through the centre but was crowded out.
Arsenal continued to press early in the second half. Van Persie led a swift breakaway five minutes after the break and picked out Denilson, lurking on the right corner of the box. The Brazilian had time to take a touch but opted for a poorly-executed first-time effort with his left foot. Arsenal's best chance of the match so far went begging.
Everton hit back. This time Cahill, anticipating well, pinched the ball in front of Djourou and fired low past Almunia's post and into the side-netting. The Australian didn't have to wait long to make amends. As the hour mark passed, Everton made further inroads down the left and Baines, in acres of space, crossed for Cahill to leap and nod into the bottom corner from 10 yards out. It was his 100th goal for an English club and it left Arsenal with plenty to do.
They set about their task gamely. Van Persie picked out Alex Song with a free kick in the middle of the park and charged into the box to meet the lofted return with a downward header which Tim Howard grabbed at his feet. Then Wenger brought on Emmanuel Eboue and Nicklas Bendtner to try and rescue a point.
Everton - bolstered by their resolute back line - held firm and could even have sewn up the match on the counter-attack. But they were pegged back at the death. With just 70 seconds of stoppage time, Diaby's lofted diagonal pass found Van Persie in the left channel. The Dutchman chested the ball into his path and lashed a fierce volley past Howard.
Time will tell how significant that will prove to be.
- Sagna 72
- Nasri Yellow Card
- Song 72
- Diaby Yellow Card
- van Persie Goal!
- Bendtner 72
- Eboue 72
- Hibbert Yellow Card
- Arteta Yellow Card
- Cahill 86 Goal!
- Anichebe 86