By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal opened up a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Everton in a breathless encounter at Emirates Stadium.
Mesut Ozil broke the deadlock nine minutes from the end when he converted Theo Walcott’s header across goal.
But the jubilation inside the Emirates would not last long as Everton got back on level terms through Gerard Deulofeu’s firm drive from inside the area.
Both sides had chances to win it before the end as Romelu Lukaku blasted one over, before Olivier Giroud rattled the post in injury time with a stunning strike.
The spoils were shared but Arsene Wenger will be satisfied with a positive weekend for his side after title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City slipped up on Saturday.
SETTING THE SCENE
As the Club’s dedicated charity matchday, the build-up to the game had been dominated by fundraising efforts for the Arsenal Foundation.
Wenger and his first-team squad had generously donated a day’s wages to the cause, while supporters around Emirates Stadium dug deep to give to bucket collections on the concourse.
For the very first time, four separate programme covers had been produced for the game - with 50 pence from each sale donated to the fundraising cause. And, just to add to an already special occasion, young members of the Hackney Creative Jazz Ensemble performed above The Armoury to help set the pre-match mood.
Wenger, meanwhile, had spoken of his side’s desire to produce a “huge performance” and, faced with the prospect of building a seven-point lead at the top of the table, there was certainly no lack of motivation.
However, with major tests to follow against Napoli and Manchester City during a testing week, he shuffled his pack once more.
Giroud was back to spearhead the attack in place of Nicklas Bendtner, Jack Wilshere lined up on the right flank for Tomas Rosicky and Kieran Gibbs came in for Nacho Monreal. Mikel Arteta captained the side on his return to the side, with Flamini dropping to the bench.
Everton meanwhile, came into the game on the back of a first win at Manchester United in 21 years and having lost just once this season. And with the dangerous Lukaku leading the line, the Gunners’ run of six clean sheets in seven matches was sure to be put to the test.
The size of their task immediately became clear as the visitors made a confident start to proceedings, with the raw pace and power of Lukaku and the guile of Ross Barkley causing problems.
Indeed, Roberto Martinez’s side had a decent opening in the fifth minute when the marauding Barkley broke forward and fed Kevin Mirallas. The Belgium international took a touch and delivered a cross from the right, but it was just behind the onrushing James McCarthy.
It was an early warning to the Gunners, but still they found it tough to make any early inroads into a well-organised Everton rearguard.
This was a clash between two of the Premier League’s most in-form sides, but the Gunners were struggling to get near to their best in the early exchanges. The slick passing and high energy that has marked their play this season was curiously absent but just before the half hour they clicked into gear.
Gibbs burst forward through the midfield and found fellow full-back Carl Jenkinson on the charge. The right back’s pass to Cazorla allowed the Spaniard to look up and play a first-time ball across the six-yard box for the onrushing Gibbs, but it was just evaded his outstretched boot.
It was an encouraging moment for Wenger’s table-topping side but there was a further scare within 60 seconds as Lukaku’s cross-shot skidded across the face of goal and the lively Mirallas was unable to get there in time.
But just before the interval Wenger’s side suddenly burst into life as Ramsey slipped Giroud into the box with a delightful pass. The France international reached the ball just before the onrushing Howard, but the Everton goalkeeper was able to block his dinked effort.
Two minutes later Ozil cut in from the right and played a low pass to Giroud on the edge of the box and his first-time pass found Ramsey, but again Howard was equal to it.
It was a thrilling end to a fascinating first-half battle and one that offered real encouragement to the Gunners.
They took their momentum into the start of the second half, with Cazorla and Ozil particularly lively.
Indeed, both were involved in the first opportunity of the half as Ozil lifted a cross from the right flank to the far post. Wilshere touched it back across goal to the waiting Cazorla, but his header was straight at Howard.
The Gunners were moving through the gears and the Emirates faithful were right behind them, roaring them on as they went in search of the goal their vast improvement merited.
But Martinez’s men still posed a clear danger on the counter and it was not long before Wojciech Szczesny was called into action for the first time to beat away a firm Pienaar shot.
It was end-to-end stuff. Moments later Gibbs whipped in a firm cross from the left and Ramsey threw his right boot at it and forced Howard into another sprawling stop.
This was much, much better from Arsenal. But the threat posed by Everton could not be ignored and in the 67th minute Szczesny was forced into another smart stop as Barkley took aim with a fierce drive from the edge of the area.
On came Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini to add fresh impetus and the latter nearly made an immediate impact as he slammed a shot across goal after good work by Giroud.
The waves of Arsenal pressure continued to grow, but they were rapidly running out of time.
Everton were certainly not playing for a point and they had two chances in the space of 30 secconds as firstly Mirallas saw a shot brilliantly blocked by Laurent Koscielny, then Sylvain Distin headed one over.
Finally the deadlock was broken in the 81st minute as Rosicky chipped in a delightful ball from the left and Walcott headed it back across goal. The ball went through Giroud’s legs, but there was Ozil to slam the ball high into the net and spark wild scenes of celebration.
But their lead would not last long as substitute Deulofeu collected the ball to the right of the box, dropped his shoulder and fired the ball beyond Szczesny.
There was still time for Lukaku to crash a 20-yard effort just over, and Giroud to rattle the bar with a fantastic strike from the edge of the area.
But in the end, the spoils were shared and Arsenal go five points clear.
Referee: Howard Webb
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