By Rob Kelly at Goodison Park
Olivier Giroud scored a 90th-minute equaliser as Arsenal came from two goals down to secure a fine comeback draw at Everton on Saturday evening.
The Gunners struggled to find their rhythm in the first half, as the hosts took charge. Seamus Coleman opened the scoring in the 18th minute when he drifted into the area unmarked to head beyond Wojciech Szcznesy.
Things went from bad to worse when, on the stroke of half time, Steven Naismith rolled the ball home at the end of a lightning-quick counter-attack - leaving the Gunners with a mountain to climb.
They had an immediate chance to reduce the arrears within seconds of the second half starting, but Giroud volleyed over from close range.
Arsène Wenger’s side continued to apply the pressure and in the 83rd minute they had their reward when Aaron Ramsey slotted in from close range after good work from Santi Cazorla.
Suddenly it was all Arsenal and in the 90th minute their persistence paid off when Giroud nodded past Tim Howard from close range.
It was a breathless end to an intense, energy-sapping game - but the Gunners will leave Merseyside knowing they answered a number of questions that had hung over them.
SETTING THE SCENE
In the build up to this game, Wenger had spoken of the ”big opportunity” it presented his side to prove their growing authority after last season’s 3-0 defeat here.
But having gone four Premier League games without a win against Everton, the size of their task was clear. This would be a thorough - and early - examination of their credentials.
After their midweek Champions League play-off exertions against Besiktas in Istanbul - and perhaps with one eye on Wednesday’s return leg - Wenger decided to shuffle his pack.
Much of the pre-match speculation had been whether the Gunners’ trio of World Cup winners would return to the starting line-up after their summer breaks. In the end, it was just Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker back on domestic duty - and both came straight into the team, for Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny respectively.
Elsewhere, Mathieu Flamini deputised for the injured Mikel Arteta at the base of the midfield, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Giroud - freeing up Alexis Sanchez to spearhead the attack.
Everton, meanwhile, welcomed Coleman back into their defence, while Romelu Lukaku - who caused so many problems for Arsenal in April - led the line.
The game got off to something of a low-key start, with both sides feeling each other out in the early exchanges, with Arsenal pressing high up the pitch and forcing the hosts into a series of errors.
Indeed the first chance of note came from such a mistake on the quarter-hour mark when Phil Jagielka was forced into a rushed clearance in his own area, which fell straight to Oxlade-Chamberlain. The England international raced on to the ball, but his first-time effort flew just past the post.
Everton had struggled to find their rhythm, but suddenly snatched the lead in the 18th minute with a goal of frustrating simplicity.
It came as Gareth Barry collected the ball just outside the Arsenal box and clipped a searching cross to the far post, where Coleman had found himself completely unmarked. The right back had made an uncertain start to the game, but powered a firm header past Szczesny.
It was undoubtedly a blow for the Gunners - and it could have got far worse two minutes later when Kevin Mirallas raced through on goal but screwed his effort just wide of the post. It was some let off for Wenger’s side.
Slowly the visitors started to grow back into the game, with Jack Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain particularly lively - but for all their intricate play on the edge of the Everton box, the final ball was missing.
Mirallas curled a free kick inches wide from the edge of the area as the hosts continued to threaten, and while Arsenal saw plenty of the ball they could not find the slick passing that often colours their attacking play.
Matters took a further turn for the worst on the stroke of half time as Lukaku held off Mertesacker on the right touchline, then beat Calum Chambers to the ball before racing clear. The Belgian international kept his cool to slip in Naismith, and the forward beat Szczesny with a composed finish.
A mighty challenge awaited them in the second half.
Wenger changed the attack at half time, with Giroud on for Alexis and the Frenchman was presented with a glorious chance within 60 seconds.
It came as Oxlade-Chamberlain collected the ball to the right of the area, and sent in a delicious curling ball to the striker. Giroud was ready and and waiting by the six-yard box but blazed his shot over the bar from close range.
It was the sort of opportunity that you felt needed to go in if Arsenal were to drag themselves back into the game, but the France international certainly added some much-needed thrust to the attack.
Indeed, when their next opportunity arrived it fell to Giroud in the 68th minute but he dragged a low shot inches wide from the edge of the area. Moments later, the ball fell invitingly to him in the box but seemed to get slightly stuck under his feet and Tim Howard was able to deal with the danger.
With the game entering the final 15 minutes, Joel Campbell was thrown on for his Premier League debut but with his side trailing by two goals, it was a tough start for the 22-year-old.
With seven minutes remaining the waves of Arsenal pressure finally had their reward when Cazorla bought some space to the left of the area, and whipped in a lovely ball for Ramsey to convert from five yards.
Suddenly it was all Arsenal as they poured forward in search of an equaliser, with Giroud again presented with a decent opportunity from a corner but drifted a near-post header just wide.
Finally, in the 90th minute redemption came for Giroud when he raced into the box to meet Nacho Monreal’s cross and directed a firm header past Tim Howard at the near post.
What a comeback - and what a message about the character of this team. Seemingly down and out, they kept their heads up, kept their composure and claimed a hard-fought point that will have felt like all three.
- Mertesacker (C) Yellow Card
- Chambers Yellow Card
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 74
- Ramsey Goal!
- Flamini Yellow Card
- Wilshere 74 Yellow Card
- Sanchez 46
- Cazorla 74
- Campbell 74
- Giroud 46 Goal!
- Jagielka (C)
- Coleman Goal!
- Baines Yellow Card
- Pienaar 9
- Naismith Goal!
- Mirallas 84
- Lukaku 74
- Osman 9
- McGeady 74
- Atsu 84