By Max Jones at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal climbed to the top of the Premier League on Saturday with an entertaining 2-1 win against Everton at Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners leapfrogged Manchester City into the first place ahead of the Manchester derby on Sunday with the three points, combined with a memorable victory against Bayern Munich four days before, ending a perfect week on the red side of north London.
Arsene Wenger’s side had struggled to break down the visitors’ resolute defence in the first half hour, but the manager’s decision to rotate his strikers paid dividends when Olivier Giroud crept in behind Phil Jagielka to head Arsenal into the lead.
The hosts were full of momentum and doubled their lead less than two minutes later when Laurent Koscielny powered Santi Cazorla’s pinpoint free-kick past Tim Howard.
Arsenal looked to be cruising into the break with a two-goal advantage but Ross Barkley’s strike cruelly deflected off Gabriel and beyond Petr Cech to give the visitors a glimmer of hope on the stroke of half-time.
The Gunners pushed for a third after the restart with Giroud, Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini all going close, but they were denied by a combination of Howard and the frame of the goal.
Everton also threatened late on when Romelu Lukaku rattled the crossbar from close range, before Gareth Barry was sent off for a second yellow card at the end of another enjoyable night for Arsenal fans.
SETTING THE SCENE
Wenger made three changes to the side that recorded an unforgettable win against Bayern Munich on Tuesday. The expected change saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come in for the injured Aaron Ramsey, while there was a surprise at centre back as Gabriel replaced Per Mertesacker who had been ruled out through illness. The in-form Giroud started up front with Theo Walcott dropping to the bench.
With the Manchester derby taking place on Sunday, the Gunners knew that three points would propel them to the top of the Premier League table for the first time since February 2014, but Roberto Martinez’s Everton, bolstered by the return of Jagielka and Seamus Coleman in defence, stood in their way.
The Toffees had struggled to find consistency in the early stages of the season, with their impressive 3-1 win against Chelsea overshadowed by last weekend’s outing, a 3-0 home defeat against Manchester United. However, with Lukaku and Barkley spearheading Everton’s front line, the visitors would always carry a threat.
Wenger had hailed Barkley’s “tremendous technique and power” in the build-up to the game, and the England international had already left his mark against the Gunners this year with a late consolation in the Barclays Asia Trophy final back in July.
The Gunners’ last Premier League home outing had seen them come flying out of the blocks to stun Manchester United with three quick-fire goals, but they were required to adopt a more patient approach this time around.
Wenger’s side had dominated possession from the first whistle and looked most threatening from set-pieces. First Giroud climbed above Jagielka to head Santi Cazorla’s corner wide, before Gabriel turned another of the Spaniard’s dangerous deliveries over the crossbar moments later.
Arsenal were gaining momentum and Mesut Ozil went closest next, racing onto Giroud’s header to find himself through on goal, but Tim Howard was off his line quickly to make a vital block with his legs.
Everton had seen little of the ball inside the Gunners’ territory but had the clearest opportunity to break the deadlock midway through the half. Petr Cech could only push Aaron Lennon’s driven cross away as far as John Stones, who sliced harmlessly wide of the goalkeeper’s left post.
However, Arsenal were soon back on the attack and after Koscielny and Alexis had given the visitors a warning, the hosts finally found the breakthrough with two quick-fire headers.
The first came from open play, with Giroud guiding Ozil’s perfectly-weighted cross past Howard’s outstretched hand. It was the France striker’s fifth goal in eight appearances against Everton since joining from Montpellier, and Ozil’s fourth assist in his last four games.
Arsenal increased the tempo as they looked to double their advantage, and their second goal came less than two minutes later when the unmarked Koscielny powered Cazorla’s whipped free-kick past Howard from close range.
However, there was still time for Everton to give their fans a glimmer of hope before half-time. Barkley collected the ball on the edge of the box and his first-time strike took a wicked deflection to beat the stranded Cech at his near post.
Despite the late setback, the Gunners stormed out after the break and had an early chance to restore their two-goal lead. Oxlade-Chamberlain slipped Alexis into the box but his low strike was well blocked by a combination of Coleman and Howard.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was growing in influence as the game went on and, after powering forward from the halfway line, he found Alexis once more but again Howard was quickly off his line to smother.
When Giroud did beat the goalkeeper for a second time, the crossbar came to the Howard’s rescue, denying the striker from 18 yards after yet another clever reverse pass by Ozil.
Despite the hosts’ dominance, though, Everton still looked dangerous on the counter-attack and should have drawn level with 10 minutes to go. The Gunners failed to deal with Gareth Barry’s deep cross and breathed a sigh of relief when Lukaku rattled a free header off the crossbar from 10 yards out.
It was end-to-end stuff in the closing stages. Flamini - replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain to shore up the defence - found himself unmarked in Everton’s box but couldn’t direct his header past Howard.
The Toffees went straight down the other end with Lukaku and he squared to Gerard Delofeu who had the whole goal to aim at, but Cech reacted brilliantly to deny the Spain Under-21 forward.
The Czech Republic goalkeeper was forced into action again moments later when Kevin Mirallas spun on the edge of the box, and Arsenal countered, with Ozil striking the frame of the goal.
There was still time for one more cheer at the Emirates, as Gareth Barry was sent off for a cynical foul on Kieran Gibbs at the end of a breathless evening in north London.
Referee: Lee Mason
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