By Rob Kelly at Goodison Park
Our 14-match unbeaten Premier League run came to an end on Tuesday after Ashley Williams headed in a late winner for Everton.
It was a frustrating end to a match that had seen Alexis opened the scoring - his 14th of a stellar season – with a curling free kick that beat Marten Stekelenburg.
It was exactly the start we would have hoped for against a home side low on confidence, but we could not build on this early advantage.
Ronald Koeman’s side grew in ambition the longer the first half went on and eventually equalised on the stroke of half time when Seamus Coleman headed in from close range.
We improved after the interval, and Mesut Ozil had a great chance to re-establish the lead but crashed a curling shot over the bar after good work from Alexis.
There was a real zip about the game as both sides went all-out for victory, but clear-cut chances remained at a premium.
Ross Barkley fired one wide for the hosts, before Alex Iwobi did the same at the other end but there was nothing between the sides in the closing stages.
But there was to be one late twists when Williams powered home a header with four minutes remaining to condemn the Gunners to a damaging defeat.
SETTING THE SCENE
The two teams came into this game in vastly different mindsets, with the hosts struggling after a promising start and having claimed just one Premier League win in their last 10 matches.
It was a different story altogether for Arsene Wenger’s side, who were unbeaten in 14 top-flight games, boasted the best away record in the division this term and had only been beaten once on the road in 2016.
The chance to go top was a clear motivating factor for us, and the boss opted against major changes – his only change seeing Hector Bellerin return at right back.
It meant Gabriel shifted into his more natural position at the heart of the defence, with Rob Holding being drafted on to the bench.
It also meant Alex Iwobi – who scored his first senior goal at Goodison Park last season – had to make do with a place on the bench, after scoring two in two games.
Everton, meanwhile, were without a win in five games, prompting Ronald Koeman to make four changes to the side – the most significant seeing Ross Barkley and Aaron Lennon drafted in.
There were palpable nerves around Goodison Park as the home side made a nervy start to the game, with a couple of defensive errors immediately eliciting groans from the home crowd.
We certainly looked more comfortable during the opening exchanges, and six minutes in we had our first sigh of goal as Nacho Monreal picked out Mesut Ozil in the area, but the German pulled his shot over the bar.
A goal seemed a matter of time and finally, with 19 minutes gone, it came – and it came with a real helping hand from the home defence.
Ashley Williams had looked edgy during the early knockings and when he mistimed a wild tackle outside the area, he gave away a free kick in a tempting position.
Alexis wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity, striking a firm free kick that deflected off Williams and hit Marten Stekelenburg and span into the net for the opener.
In truth it was a bit of a gift, but one we were more than happy to receive and it was just reward for sprightly opening to this game.
Everton responded well, with Enner Valencia and Lennon going close and Barkley starting to grow into the game – providing warning signs to the visitors.
The hosts came close to equalising just before the interval when Lennon latched on to a loose ball in the area, but sliced his shot wide from close range.
We didn’t heed the warning though, and were made to pay when Coleman ghosted into the box just before the break to head in an equaliser.
We needed to up the tempo after the restart and that’s exactly what we did, snapping into tackles and fizzing the ball around as we sought to reassert our dominance.
Much like in the first half, Ozil had a big early chance as he raced on to Alexis’ cutback from the left byeline, but curled his first-time shot over the bar.
It was a golden opportunity, but we kept on pressing and probing at the home side – although Barkley arrowed a shot just wide of Petr Cech’s post soon afterwards.
We continued to up the ante, and Wenger soon introduced Iwobi and Olivier Giroud for the final 20 minutes as we searched for the goal that would help take us top of the table.
But with Everton throwing themselves forward as well, the game was anyone’s for the taking in the closing stages.
Iwobi was next to try his luck, meeting an Alexis cutback from the left, taking a touch and firing into the sidenetting from 10 yards out.
Cech made a fine save to deny Phil Jagielka in the closing stages, but from the resulting corner Williams rose highest and crashed a header in to deny us a point.
Jagielka was sent off at the death for the hosts, but there was to be no late comeback for us.
It was a frustrating end to a frustrating evening, but there is no time to lick our wounds ahead of a massive game at Manchester City this weekend.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
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