By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal inched further away from their top-four competitors by grinding out a goalless draw with Everton on Tuesday night at Emirates Stadium.
Both sides came into this game buoyed by fine form and with genuine Champions League hopes. And they were pretty evenly-matched on the night.
Everton were on top for the first 30 minutes, Arsenal controlled the final hour. But neither keeper made a major save all night.
Arsène Wenger’s side poured on the pressure in the final stages and came closest when two scrambling Everton defenders prevented Olivier Giroud sliding in a low cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Frenchman also blazed over from close range.
Third-place Arsenal are now two points clear of Chelsea and Tottenham but the latter have a game in hand while the former have two.
However, Everton have been horribly hard to beat this season and yet they were hanging on to a point for the remaining 15 minutes on Tuesday evening.
Arsenal have lost just one Premier League game in the last three months and if they match this performance for the final five games they will surely secure a seat at Europe’s top table next term.
On the eve of the game, the manager had admitted he had “plenty of decisions to make” in terms of selection.
The biggest depended on the fitness tests of Lukasz Fabianski’s ribs. The Polish keeper failed to recover so his compatriot Wojciech Szczesny was restored for the first time since the defeat at Tottenham on March 3.
The returning Per Mertesacker was preferred to Thomas Vermaelen at centre back meanwhile Theo Walcott replaced Gervinho.
This was second v third in the form table and, had Spurs not grabbed a late equaliser against them last month, Everton would be kept out of the Champions League places on goal difference alone.
Apart from the visit of champions-elect Manchester United, this was arguably Arsenal’s toughest fixture of what is left of the season.
It certainly began in that vein.
A cagey, inconclusive opening quarter was only punctuated by Steven Pienaar lifting his shot over the bar having been released through the middle by Phil Jagielka’s perceptive pass.
Everton were the more audacious side but gradually Arsenal settled and, midway through the half, Santi Cazorla set up Kieran Gibbs to fire over.
It was as intense as it was important but there was little fluency in the game.
In the final ten minutes of the half the chances began to arrive.
Ross Barkley tested Szczesny from distance and then set up Victor Anichebe but the striker’s shot deflected off Mertesacker and into the keeper’s grateful arms.
Four minutes from half-time, Arsenal opened up Everton for the first time. The excellent Aaron Ramsey swept a raking ball into the heart of the area from the right-hand flank.
Giroud steamed into meet it but slid his effort wide. Seconds later Cazorla’s angled shot was charged down.
Goalless and level seemed about right at the break.
But Arsenal picked up their pre-interval pace with alacrity and Gibbs was the main provider.
The left back set up Cazorla to warm the hands of Tim Howard from range then Giroud curled an effort over the bar.
Arteta fouled Pienaar in the D but the Arsenal wall provided more than adequate protection from Leighton Baines’ free-kick. When they home side broke clear Walcott sprinted away and nearly set up Giroud.
For Everton, Barkley had stood out all evening and he nearly broke the deadlock in the 65th minute when Arsenal afforded him too much space just outside the area and he curled a dangerous effort inches wide of Szczesny’s top left-hand corner.
Arsenal needed new impetus so Wenger brought on Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Walcott and Wilshere.
As on Saturday, the new additions brought energy. Cazorla began to twinkle in midfield again and Podolski added power on the left.
Arsenal forced a succession of corners. It was pressure but the opportunities created were scruffy at best.
Moyes responded by bring on taking off a midfielder for a striker, Barkley for Nikica Jelavic.
The home side broke clear in the 77th minute but a combination of Sylvain Distin and Seamus Coleman stopped the sliding Giroud turning Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross over the line.
A couple of minute later, Arsenal stole the ball on the flank and found the French striker in the area. His turn was excellent but he blazed his shot high over the bar.
Arsenal had now wrestled complete control and seemed the more likely winners but this evening Everton were their resilient selves.
This was the first goalless draw between these two sides in London in more than a century of League football.
That was probably the most memorable aspect of an intense, keenly-contested but ultimately unremarkable game.
However the battling spirit Arsenal showed will serve them well for the rest of the run-in.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
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