By Richard Clarke
Arsenal closed the gap on their title rivals with a hard-fought 3-0 win over Hull at Emirates Stadium on Saturday evening.
Arsène Wenger's side struggled early on but Denilson gave them the lead with a gorgeous free-kick on the stroke of half-time. Then, after Manuel Almunia had saved Geovanni's penalty, Eduardo tapped home on the hour and Abou Diaby made the points safe with a well-worked third with 11 minutes to go.
After their defeat at Fulham earlier in the day, Manchester United are now just two points ahead of Arsenal having played one game more. Wenger's men are also five shy of Chelsea, though the Stamford Bridge side visit struggling West Ham on Sunday.
Still, this was a nice cruise into Christmas. After that humbling defeat to Chelsea in the final fixture of November, Arsenal have responded by taking 10 points from 12 in December.
The Stamford Bridge side are understandable favourites to win the title at the moment but, in recent weeks, Wenger's side have looked like becoming their most dogged pursuers.
This race is only half run of course but, if they continue this form, Arsenal will be breathing down Chelsea's neck right until the end.
Wenger's side showed three changes from the side that had squeezed out a draw at Burnley in midweek. Cesc Fabregas scored Arsenal's goal at Turf Moor before hobbling off with a hamstring problem. His injury allowed the fit-again Denilson to come straight back into the side on a bitterly cold North London evening.
Theo Walcott dropped down to the bench and Eduardo came in. Somewhat surprisingly the Croatian was not employed up front but on the left. Andrey Arshavin remained in the central attacking role with Samir Nasri moving out to the right.
The final change was like-for-like - Emmanuel Eboue replacing Bacary Sagna at right back.
After defeats for Liverpool and, in particular, Manchester United earlier on Saturday, Arsenal once again welcomed Hull with opportunity knocking. Having said that, Arsenal would have been top of the table on September 27 last year had they beaten Phil Brown's side - and we know what happened then.
Early on the visitors would, once again, show little respect for their higher-placed hosts. Hull were perky in the opening stages. Their only notable opportunity came in the fourth minute when Diaby was dispossessed by George Boateng and Craig Fagan rifled a shot just wide.
However it was more than Arsenal were creating.
It took the home side 13 minutes to manufacture something of consequence. It came when Arshavin, Eduardo and Nasri set up Diaby just outside the area. The Frenchman's shot deflected wide.
Shortly afterwards, Nasri himself thumped an effort into the chest of keeper Boaz Myhill.
Midway through the half, Eduardo curled a glorious shot just beyond the far post from the corner of the area. It was the first real touch of quality in the game.
The Croatian had been out of the side recently but, tonight, he was the closest to lighting Arsenal's touch paper. He shone again on the half-hour when he bamboozled the Hull defence and exchanged passes with Nasri before being muscled out in the area.
As half time approached, Arsenal were finally starting to warm up. The same could not be said of the crowd. London was in the middle of a cold snap and the exterior of Emirates Stadium was sprinkled with snow.
In the 40th minute, Arshavin's left-wing cross was nodded wide by Alex Song. But for the attentions of Eduardo, the Cameroonian might have scored.
A goal seemed some way away but, just before half-time, two free-kicks in exactly the same place reshaped the game. First Geovanni fouled Arshavin just outside the area and an unsightly melee broke out. The end result was bookings for Nasri and Stephen Hunt then the Frenchman sent the free-kick into the wall.
In injury time, Boateng brought down Diaby on virtually the same blade of grass and Denilson curled in a cracking free-kick into the corner of the net.
It was the Brazilian's third goal of the season - all of which had been scored from around 25 yards.
Three minutes after half-time, Arsenal might have killed the game.
There seemed little on when Arshavin sent in a regulation ball to Eduardo's feet. The striker's turn was poetry in motion but, having gone clear he could only stutter a shot wide. It was a glaring miss, the type of one that sometimes proves pivotal.
And it nearly did.
In the 56th minute Silvestre was adjudged to have hauled down Fagan as they tussled for a left-wing cross. It looked innocuous but referee Steve Bennett pointed to the penalty spot.
Geovanni's slow run-up smacked of placement over power but Almunia guessed correctly. He dived to his right to pull off a fine save then Hunt nodded the rebound wide.
Emirates Stadium celebrated as though justice had been done.
Three minutes later, the crowd were on their feet again. Diaby and Song played a give-and-go in the left-hand channel. The Frenchman's cutback was turned in by Eduardo from two yards out.
That ended Hull's resistance and, 11 minutes from time, Diaby nailed down the coffin lid. He exchanged passes with Song and Arshavin then held off his marker before firing home. A lovely goal.
The full-time whistle was welcome. Arsenal had the points and, frankly, the frost-bitten crowd probably needed to thaw themselves out.
Merry Christmas everyone.
- Almunia (C)
- Nasri 68 Yellow Card
- Denilson Goal!
- Arshavin 83
- Diaby Goal!
- Eduardo 75 Goal!
- Ramsey 68
- Walcott 75
- Vela 83
- Zayatte Yellow Card
- Gardner (C)
- Geovanni 68
- Boateng Yellow Card
- Barmby 46 Yellow Card
- Hunt Yellow Card
- Garcia 61
- Mendy 68
- Olofinjana 46 Yellow Card
- Cousin 61
- Vennegoor of Hesselink