By Richard Clarke
Arsenal returned to second place in the Premier League with a hard-fought but richly-deserved 2-1 win at Everton on Sunday.
Bacary Sagna thumped the visitors in front nine minutes before half-time – his second strike in 147 games for the Club – and Cesc Fabregas cracked home another just after the restart.
The home team put pressure on Arsene Wenger’s side for the remainder of the game but, as they had at Wolves in midweek, Arsenal rolled up their sleeves. The defence was largely stoic and, when it wasn’t, Lukasz Fabianski bailed them out with a string of late saves.
In the dying seconds, Tim Cahill did force the ball home from close range to set up four frantic minutes of injury time. But the comeback was never really on.
Arsenal were full value for their win this afternoon and it means that now more than half of their points have come away from Emirates Stadium
If Wenger’s men are going to win the title this season, it seems they are happy to win it on the road.
The manager made one change from the side that had toughed out a 2-0 win at Wolves on Wednesday. Samir Nasri returned to replace Tomas Rosicky. The Frenchman started on the right hand side to allow Andrey Arshavin to stay on the left.
Having lost so lamely against Newcastle at Emirates Stadium last Sunday, this game would determine the ‘feel’ of the week. Six points and a return to second place would be a reasonable response in the circumstances.
But, with Everton unbeaten in their last seven games, this was likely to be a similar kind of gritty scrap to Wednesday night.
And so it proved.
The opening minutes were muted. The hosts had the edge but created nothing.
The first chance fell to Arsenal in the tenth minute. The visiting defence backed off the advancing Nasri until the Frenchman was 12 yards from goal and eventually, Sylvain Distin threw himself in to block.
Everton immediately flew down the other end and created, what turned out to be, their best chance of the half. Seamus Coleman advanced on the right and picked out the unmarked Cahill at the far post. The Australian is known for his excellence in the air but this time he got everything wrong. The midfielder tried to guide the ball back inside the near post. In fact he put it over the bar. A huge miss.
Midway through the half, Arshavin weaved inside and thumped over. Then Marouane Chamakh’s backflick set Jack Wilshere traversing the area. Just as the youngster got his shot away, Phil Jagielka flew in to deflect his effort wide.
It was evidence that Arsenal had finally found their feet. This was no advert for the quality of Premier League football but the visitors were now the better side.
Arshavin and Alex Song thumped wide of the woodwork and, just past the half-hour, a flowing move saw Fabregas cut the ball back towards Chamakh at the near post. The Moroccan’s dummy was wasteful.
These were not great opportunities but they were more than Everton were creating. Nine minutes before the half-time whistle Arsenal finally put it all together.
Nasri’s shot was turned aside by Tim Howard and the ball eventually fell to Sagna, who beat the keeper with a powerful shot from the narrowest of angles.
The crowd tried to roar an Everton response but the home side lacked guile in the final third.
Arsenal had not been at their best but they were worth their lead.
Both sides made changes at the start of the second half. Denilson replaced Wilshere, who had needed treatment in the first period. Jack Rodwell came on for Johnny Heitinga.
Within two minutes of the kick-off, the visitors doubled their advantage. Denilson lead a breakaway and fed Chamakh just inside the area. In heavy traffic, the striker slipped the ball to Fabregas whose snapshot found the far corner. It was the Spaniard’s fifth goal of the season.
Everton might have replied immediately when Squillaci brought down Louis Saha and Leighton Baines floated his free-kick into the midriff of Fabianski.
After the early set-back, the home side were now chasing a foothold in the game. It meant Arsenal were both under pressure and threatening a third on the break. Just before the hour, the visitors had two clear-cut chances to score a killer third.
First, Nasri breezed past Jagielka to go one-on-one with Howard. The Everton keeper stood up well to repel his shot.
Seconds later, Fabregas fired an inviting ball across the face of goal to the unmarked Chamakh at the far post. Somehow the sliding striker contrived to slice the ball over the bar from three yards.
A contender for miss of the season.
With 21 minutes remaining, Everton manager David Moyes brought off two midfielders – Phil Neville and Mikael Arteta – for two strikers – Yakubu and Jermaine Beckford. His tactics were now crystal clear.
But the expected pressure on the Arsenal goal did not really materialise. The home side’s next chance came nine minutes from time when Beckford hooked a snapshot towards the far post. Fabianski made an excellent save.
A couple of minutes later, the Pole made another stunning stop from Steven Pienaar’s drive.
As full time approached Everton turned the screw. Three minutes from the end the ball fell to Saha’s feet just outside the area. Again Fabianski was equal to the effort.
The home side did find the net in the final minute of normal time. Saha nodded the ball down at the far post for Cahill to poke home from close range.
It sparked Everton into real urgency at last but, barring a few optimistic crosses, Arsenal were comfortable.
The visiting fans were in good voice at the final whistle – and rightly so. This was a massive win for Wenger’s men. One that sends them in to the international break in the ascendancy.
And, of course, they entertain Tottenham next Saturday.
Referee: Howard Webb
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