By Richard Clarke at Goodison Park
Arsenal moved up to third place in the Premier League with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Everton on Wednesday evening.
On a key night in the race for the top three, Arsène Wenger’s side rose above Tottenham, who were held at home by Stoke, and cruised six points clear of Chelsea, who lost at Manchester City.
The visitors were irresistible in the opening 20 minutes and should have scored more than just the solitary goal provided by Thomas Vermaelen in the early stages. However, Everton improved before the break and might have equalised when Royston Drenthe’s strike was controversially ruled out for offside.
David Moyes' men continued to press after the interval but, gradually, Arsenal drew their sting. At times it was a backs-against-the-wall performance but successful seasons are based on those.
This was a sixth straight league win for Wenger’s side and, given they squeezed above their neighbours from N7, perhaps the sweetest.
Chelsea and/or Tottenham will drop further points this weekend as they play each other at Stamford Bridge.
Third place is now entirely in Arsenal’s hands and, if they show similar fortitude in the coming weeks, they will surely complete the job.
Wenger made one change from the side that had left it so late in beating Newcastle way back when last Monday, with Aaron Ramsey replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Nine days is a significant breather at this period of the campaign but Everton had been afforded no such luxury. On Saturday, Moyes’ team had played their part in blood-and-thunder FA Cup tie with Sunderland at Goodison Park. There were two changes this evening when there might have been more.
Both sides came out in shirts in support of Fabrice Muamba, the former Arsenal midfielder who had been struck down with a heart attack while playing for Bolton last weekend.
Supporters and players from both sides clapped their appreciation. The reaction was befitting with the standing Muamba holds in the game.
Arsenal started with pace and panache. Tomas Rosicky nudged a cross to the far post, Robin van Persie nodded it down and the onrushing Ramsey hoisted his shot over the bar.
Seconds later, Theo Walcott set up an even better chance for the Welshman but this time his shot was blocked.
Van Persie sent over the resultant corner and Vermaelen steered home a simple header.
Only eight minutes had elapsed but Arsenal had been imperious. They fully deserved their lead.
A couple of minutes later, it might have been doubled but Van Persie’s drive was blocked, as was Ramsey’s follow-up.
At the other end, Leon Osman drifted a header wide as Everton gradually found their feet.
But Arsenal were fluent when they had the ball and pressed with persistence when they did not. Wenger’s side had been irresistible for the first half-hour and their performance merited more than just a one-goal lead.
It was not just what they were doing but it was the way they were doing it. Such style, strength and speed.
However, the first half nearly flipped around in the 32nd minute. The visitors were fortunate to retain their lead when Drenthe’s goal was chalked off for offside. The Everton crowd vocalised their view and replays suggested they had a viable point.
It was a let-off for Arsenal and a sign that the game had swung.
Everton now enjoyed more possession and territory. However, they nearly shipped another just before the whistle when Rosicky’s swerving shot was batted away by Tim Howard in unconvincing fashion.
It had been an uneven half from Arsenal but they could go into the break very satisfied with their work.
But Everton continued their improvement at the start of the second half. Fellaini headed Leighton Baines’ free-kick straight at Wojciech Szczesny as the home side cranked up the pressure.
In an isolated chance, Van Persie bashed Kieran Gibbs’ nod-down against the post but the assistant referee flagged for offside.
The second half was now being played at Everton’s pace and Arsenal were struggling to cope – the reverse of the opening 20 minutes.
The home side pinged cross after cross into the visiting penalty area but Wenger’s back four had grace under fire. There was no better illustration when Laurent Koscielny hooked the ball away from Steven Pienaar when the South African went flying through on the left of the area. Szczesny also saved wonderfully when Fellaini burst through.
Gradually Everton began to lose intensity as we reached the midway point of the half. In the 71st minute, Walcott darted inside and set up Ramsey on the left but the Welshman’s drive was blocked. The corner fell to the same player… with the same result.
Van Persie burst through and poked the ball past Howard but no-one was on hand to turn it in. Then, after Drenthe had slashed a shot over the bar, the Dutchman planted a shot high following fine work from substitute Gervinho.
By now Everton were visibliy tiring and, despite Moyes ending with four strikers and Fellaini all up front at the finish, Arsenal held on.
A crucial win on a crucial night.
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Rosicky 88
- Walcott 79
- Djourou 88
- Gervinho 79
- Osman 79
- Pienaar Yellow Card
- Cahill 88 Yellow Card
- Drenthe 79
- Stracqualursi 88
- Gueye 79
- Anichebe 79