By Chris Harris at Goodison Park
Arsenal face a fight to secure their place in next season's Champions League after slipping to a 3-0 defeat at Everton on Sunday.
First-half goals from Steven Naismith and Romelu Lukaku did most of the damage and, although Arsenal improved after the break, they struggled to impose themselves on Roberto Martinez's in-form team. An own goal on the hour mark from Mikel Arteta ended their resistance.
The return of Aaron Ramsey was a silver lining on a cloudy day and he showed enough energy and dynamism in his 25-minute cameo to suggest he can influence the vital games that lie ahead.
But, as Arsene Wenger admitted recently, Arsenal must "look behind" them for the rest of the Premier League season - and with increasing anxiety. Everton are just a point adrift and have a game in hand on the Gunners in the race for a top-four finish.
That battle will resume next weekend when Everton visit Sunderland while Arsenal turn their attention to the FA Cup semi-final and a Wembley date with Wigan Athletic.
It's a fixture that could define the 2013/14 campaign - and it's a chance to get back on track after this disappointing day on Merseyside.
SETTING THE SCENE
The pre-match chatter was dominated by the return of Ramsey - by common consensus Arsenal's Player of the Season before his campaign was interrupted by a Boxing Day injury.
The Wales midfielder was named on the bench alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as Arsene Wenger opted for Lukas Podolski on the left and Mathieu Flamini alongside former Everton midfielder Arteta. There was one change to the starting line-up - Nacho Monreal, just back from a foot injury, replaced Kieran Gibbs, who was ruled out with an ankle problem.
Last weekend's battling draw with Manchester City meant Arsenal took some momentum into what Wenger had described as "a six-pointer". But Everton were the top flight's form horse after five consecutive wins. A sixth would give them the upper hand over the Gunners in the battle for a Champions League place.
Everton's attacking intent was obvious from the first whistle. With Lukaku ably supported by Naismith and Kevin Mirallas, the Arsenal back four - and its protective shield of Flamini and Arteta - had their hands full.
A containment job was necessary to weather the early storm. For a while it went well, although Leon Osman sent a dipping shot arcing over Wojciech Szczesny and just wide of the post, before Seamus Coleman crashed an effort into Arteta's midriff.
Arsenal had their moments too, Podolski firing wide from the edge of the box and then overlooking Monreal's overlap to try again from further out. That was well off target but Flamini did test Tim Howard with a fiercely-hit effort from 20 yards.
Naismith's ability to find space in behind Lukaku was evident from the start and he struck the first blow after 14 minutes. Seconds after Coleman almost sold Howard short with a poor backpass, Everton swept forward. Lukaku found space for a low shot which Szczesny blocked, but Naimsith was on hand to bury the rebound.
Arsenal looked for a response. For the first time in the match Bacary Sagna made ground down the right and Olivier Giroud got ahead of his marker to apply a deft flick to his compatriot's cross, but the shot drifted wide.
However, with substitute Ross Barkley pulling the strings, Everton looked significantly more potent. Szczesny was suddenly overworked, diving low to his right to deny Barkley and then punching away a corner before saving from Mirallas - all in the space of a minute.
You sensed a second goal was coming and Lukaku delivered it after 35 minutes. The on-loan striker showed pace and skill to cut inside from the right and evade two challenges before powering a left-foot shot beyond Szczesny.
It looked bleak for Arsenal but they almost found a way back into the game five minutes before the break when Podolski's shot bounced up and nearly over Howard, who backpedalled to tip the ball away.
There were encouraging signs for Arsenal at the start of the second half as the visitors applied pressure and created a handful of dangerous situations.
Monreal delivered a teasing ball that flashed across Everton's box and Giroud almost capitalised when Mirallas ran into trouble inside his own area.
Santi Cazorla's tenacity earned him possession deep in opposition territory but, unusually, the Spaniard's passing let him down when he tried to find Flamini. The Frenchman's shot, at full stretch, was off target.
Thomas Vermaelen sent a header goalwards from Monreal's diagonal cross but that was easy for Howard and, on the hour mark, Arsenal's uphill task became a mountain to climb.
Bacary Sagna was dispossessed by Mirallas on the halfway line and the Belgian ran forward 20 yards before playing in Naismith. Szczesny did well to beat him to the ball but Mirallas, having continued his run, put enough pressure on Arteta to force an own goal from the rebound.
Wenger's response was to inject pace - via Oxlade-Chamberlain - and energy - via Ramsey. And Arsenal flickered briefly in the moments after that duo came on.
Oxlade-Chamberlain crashed a shot against the bar with five minutes remaining and Yaya Sanogo, also on as a sub, found the net only to have his first goal for the club chalked off - wrongly - for offside.
It would have been no more than a consolation on a forgettable day for Arsenal.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Copyright 2024 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.