By Richard Clarke
Arsenal broke into the top four for the first time this season after a wonder strike from Robin van Persie ended Everton’s dogged resistance at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The afternoon had started in a celebratory mood. This famous football club were 125 years old today and, quite rightly, they laid on a pre-match party.
Everton, however, were not willing to play the role of compliant guests. Combative and controlled, they were just starting think about an unlikely win when the Dutchman volleyed home sweetly from Alex Song’s clipped cross-field ball 20 minutes from time.
It was Van Persie’s 33rd goal in 32 Premier League games in 2011 - one short of the watching Thierry Henry’s club record for a calendar year.
More importantly this victory made it 22 points of a possible 24 in the league. Rising to fourth is welcome fillip for everyone at the Club and perhaps it was fitting that they got there, on this day of all days, with their most famous scoreline.
This was one very happy birthday.
Before kick-off, Arsenal returned to full strength, having rotated for the trip to Olympiacos in midweek. However, the game in Greece had cost Wenger the services of Andre Santos so Thomas Vermaelen moved to left-back. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were paired in the middle while Johan Djourou was operating at right-back.
Arsenal’s entire defence were centre halves this afternoon. The rest of the team had been on duty at Wigan last weekend.
While those birthday celebrations were entirely justified, Wenger was well aware that this was a vital fixture. Everton had taken the lead on the last three occasions that the teams had met at Emirates Stadium and, once again, they began brightly this afternoon.
The visitors pushed back Arsenal in the early stages and had a decent chance when Louis Saha’s shot was charged down after Wojciech Szczesny punched clear from a corner.
It took the home side 15 minutes to register a chance – but, in fairness, it was a good one.
Mikel Arteta robbed Marouane Fellaini in midfield and sent Theo Walcott flying down the right. He could see the whites of Tim Howard’s eyes but decided to square across the face of goal. Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho were racing towards it but the sliding Tony Hibbert put off the Ivorian, who let the ball run under his foot and could not retrieve the rebound effectively.
The effort woke up Arsenal and, via Walcott, they took the game to Everton. Suddenly the visitors were on their heels and, in the 29th minute, their hosts twice came within a whisker of taking the lead.
First Song prodded Ramsey through and, though running away from goal, he swivelled expertly before skimming the net with a clever shot. Seconds later, Gervinho burst clear on the right and his low shot bounced off the knee of the diving Howard.
Walcott continued to be Arsenal’s most effective outlet. Nine minutes from the break, he skipped to the byline but his cutback was cleared. Just before the whistle he exchanged passes with Ramsey but, once again, the cross was hacked away.
Arsenal had a half-shout for handball against Phil Jagielka but, at the break, you felt the home side had merited more given the chances they had created.
The game continued in the same vein after the restart. Vermaelen had a long-range effort blocked and Walcott’s crosses were dangerous albeit fruitless.
Everton were still dangerous but, by now, they were restricted to breakaway efforts. From one, Vermaelen headed Leighton Baines’ cross behind with Tim Cahill lurking at the back post.
Before that, Walcott had cut inside and forced a flying save from Howard.
As the hour-mark came and went, frustration was rising. When David Moyes withdrew striker Louis Saha for Sylvain Distin, a centre-back, you assumed that would get even worse.
That said, Phil Neville fired just over almost immediately as the visitors sustained serious pressure for the first time since the opening 15 minutes. Then Fellaini ended another move by hacking the ball over the bar.
It seemed that Everton went starting to smell a victory.
Van Persie’s goal would put them off the scent.
Koscielny found Song in midfield. The Cameroonian international clipped an inviting ball towards the Dutchman just outside the area on the left–hand side. He chose to go for the volley. Such is the technique and confidence of the 28-year-old right now it found the far corner of the net.
It was Van Persie’s 19th goal of the season – and probably the best.
Vermaelen nearly headed home another shortly afterwards but the Belgian was substituted with eight minutes left, having come off the worst in an aerial challenge with Fellaini. Ignasi Miquel came on.
Arsenal had control in the latter stages and might have sealed the win when Van Persie fired high and wide at the near post.
However, in injury time, Everton substitute Conor McAleny flashed a drive inches wide of the far post.
The full whistle saw around 60,000 fists punch the air – metaphorically if not physically. As the team congratulated each other, Szczesny bent down and kissed the left foot of Van Persie.
Today Arsenal had needed something extraordinary to force a victory and, fortunately for them, in the Dutchman, they have a steady supply.
Referee: Howard Webb
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