By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium There are ‘moments’ in any title-winning season; history may portray this as one. Arsenal trailed to a highly-controversial goal for 45 fraught and frantic minutes on Tuesday night before a rapid double repaired their Premier League aspirations.
Louis Saha struck midway through the first half to give Everton the lead. The Frenchman was clearly offside when Seamus Coleman chipped through a pass but the officials somehow interpreted that the ‘second phase’ had been enacted when Laurent Koscielny’s attempted clearance dropped into the path of the striker. The decision hung over the game like a black cloud after that. The visitors’ robust, well-structured game plan only added to the frustration. In the circumstances, it was highly ironic that Andrey Arshavin would prove to be a catalyst for the revival. The Russian has been off-form recently and therefore started this game on the bench. Eight minutes after his arrival in the middle of the second half, he would volley Arsenal level. The goal broke Everton’s resistance and, five minutes later, Koscielny plundered a header from Robin van Persie’s corner. With Manchester United and a resurgent Chelsea both winning this evening, victory was essential. Arsenal held their nerve and their sense of injustice sufficiently to come through unscathed.
It bodes well for the battle ahead. Before Sunday’s FA Cup tie with Huddersfield, Wenger had predicted that he would play two different sides for back to back games in 48 hours. He was nearly right. Only Koscielny was retained from the weekend. The returnees were entirely expected – the notables were Tomas Rosicky replacing Arshavin and Bacary Sagna coming back after suffering a head injury last week against Ipswich. January had been a mammoth month for Arsenal and had ended with a mammoth transfer deadline day. The passing of both represented a minor watershed in the campaign. A line had been drawn and the rest of the season started now. However, Arsenal did not match the mood in the opening 15 minutes. The home side were lethargic and Everton made them pay. They did not create chances, only pressure, but the visitors had outplayed Arsenal at Emirates Stadium last season and were unfortunate to only get a point. Despite their lowly position, Moyes' men were of a similar calibre this term – tough, aggressive with a more than a smattering of class. Arsenal knew what was coming but struggled to cope. However by the quarter-hour, the home side had woken up. Van Persie’s right-wing free-kick was deflected behind by Phil Neville. Then the Dutchman backheeled a wonderful opportunity for the onrushing Fabregas, who shanked his shot wide. In the 22nd minute, Alex Song challenged Johnny Heitinga on the edge of the area and the ball fell kindly for Walcott, whose drive cannoned off the legs of Tim Howard. The home side had snatched control of the game so the opening goal was against the run of play in itself. The controversy surrounding it only added to the annoyance around Emirates Stadium. Coleman tried to find Saha from midfield but miscued his attempted chip through. When the ball was played, the Frenchman was offside however Koscielny tried to clear the ball and hooked it straight into the path of Saha, who played on and scored. The Arsenal defence stood aghast as Everton celebrated. They had fully expected a flag. After the ball had been placed back on the centre spot, the referee and his assistant consulted but, to a cacophony of boos, the original decision stood. The home tried to rally. Djourou nudged a header wide from Van Persie’s corner then Fabregas burst through and drove beyond the far post. But a sense of injustice remained – both on the pitch and in the crowd. Arsenal were struggling to retain their poise while, quite understandably, Everton were looking to take advantage. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Marouane Fellaini drove dangerously down the left-hand channel just before the whistle. The half-time conversations around Emirates were crammed full with indignation and interpretations of the offside law. That goal was just not going away.
Abou Diaby replaced Song for the restart. The Cameroon international had required treatment during the first half and presumably that had forced him off. The opening 10 minutes were full of energy and endeavour by Arsenal. Van Persie hit a free-kick into the wall and then stung Howard’s hands. Inbetween Gael Clichy’s optimistic drive was deflected wide.
Tensions were running high. On the hour, Van Persie earned the sixth booking of the evening for trying to haul Mikael Arteta to his feet after a foul.
It was an indication of the frustration Arsenal were now suffering. Everton’s shape and discipline only added the problem. Arshavin came on for Rosicky, then Nicklas Bendtner replaced Jack Wilshere. It was a throw of the dice by Wenger – a gamble. And it paid off. In the 70th minute, Fabregas clipped a lofted ball forward and Jack Rodwell’s miscued header dropped kindly for Arshavin, who volleyed home. It was similar to the first strike, only this time the scorer was clearly onside when the ball was played. Meanwhile, the identity of the scorer was a massive irony. Arshavin was perhaps the only player on the pitch that needed a goal more than his team. In the wake of the strike, Arsenal were re-born. Bendtner bicycled kicked a shot into the arms of Howard, then Van Persie’s free-kick forced the Everton No 1 to fingertip the ball on to the roof of the net. Shortly afterwards, Arsenal struck again. Van Persie floated a corner to the far post and Koscielny thundered home his third goal of the season. Everton responded as best they could but, after the early goal, they had barely tested Wojciech Szczesny. It was too little too late for them. Arsenal, however, had found their goal-scoring touch just in time tonight.
Referee: Lee Mason
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