Arsenal lose control of their own destiny in top-four race after Everton draw
Premier League: Arsenal 0 Everton 0
Arsenal saw their winning run ended by a resolute Everton side at the Emirates but remain in third place for at least the next 24 hours.
The Gunners extended their lead over Chelsea and Spurs to two points, but both those sides now have games in hand and Chelsea can reclaim third spot by winning at Fulham on Wednesday night and will still have played a game less.
However, this was not merely a case of two points dropped – Everton more than held their own and with a little more attacking ambition could have won at the Emirates for the first time under David Moyes.
Arsene Wenger was left to reflect on another failed gamble in selecting a still struggling Jack Wilshere, with Arsenal really only turning the screw late in the game once Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukasz Podolski had entered the fray.
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Olivier Giroud missed Arsenal’s two best chances of the night, but this was a game of very few openings between two very well-matched sides. Everton are off the pace now for the top four, but still have to face Chelsea and will give Rafa Benitez’s side as good a game as they have Spurs and Arsenal over the last fortnight.
As expected, Wojciech Szczesny returned in goal in place of the injured Lukasz Fabianski, Per Mertesacker came back from suspension to put Thomas Vermaelen back on the bench, and Theo Walcott was preferred to Gervinho on the right flank.
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For such an important game for both clubs’ seasons there was a tentative atmosphere at the Emirates, and it became even more so for the majority when Everton missed a glorious early chance to take the lead when Steven Pienaar, perhaps not fully expecting to be onside, lifted the ball over Szczesny and the crossbar.
Wilshere, surprisingly retained in the starting line-up after struggling against Norwich on Saturday, was in the thick of the early action, although not as much as the man with the job of keeping an eye on him, Everton’s Darron Gibson.
While Kevin Mirallas was ticked off for one early tackle on Wilshere, referee Neil Swarbrick had little option but to book Gibson for a weighty lunge at Walcott shortly after.
When the Irish midfielder clumsily bodychecked the same player just past the half-hour mark, he would not have been done by to get his marching orders, but Swarbrick decided on leniency to keep the sides at 11 apiece.
Pienaar soon followed into the book for another bodycheck on Walcott and the Emirates crowd reacted furiously, although in truth Everton had simply started competitively, not maliciously.
Arsenal created little in the first half, Kieran Gibbs lashing one effort over after a careless pass from Mirallas, and a couple of Wilshere free-kicks testing the visiting defence.
Then four minutes before the break Aaron Ramsey broke clear down the right and centred for Giroud and the Frenchman got there first but sent his shot the wrong side of the post, from an Arsenal perspective.
Moments later some excellent approach play from Wilshere set Santi Cazorla a sight of goal, but his low shotm was blocked.
Arsenal lifted the tempo immediately after the break, Gibbs thrusting forward down the left flank and setting up Cazorla for a snapshot which Tim Howard parried.
Walcott was also more involved, surging past his England team-mate Leighton Baines on a couple of occasions and harrying Sylvain Distin.
But Everton were holding their own. The pacy Mirallas setting up lively counterattacks and then Pienaar winning a free kick which was thrashed into the wall twice by Baines. Suddenly you could see why barely a few points have separated these sides all season.
The 19-year-old Ross Barkley was looking the visitors’ most potent threat playing behind the striker Anichebe, and he left Arteta for dead on 65 minutes and sent a viciously curling shot inches past the top left-hand corner of Szczesny’s net.
Wenger decided it was time for a change, again withdrawing Wilshere early as well as Walcott and bringing on two players who feel they should be starting games, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Podolski.
The tempo was raised another notch as Arsenal took the initiative, with Podolski cutting in from the left flank and Cazorla moving into the centre where Wilshere had struggled to dominate the combative Fellaini and Gibson.
With 15 minutes to go Arsenal so nearly found a winner. Oxlade-Chamberlain broke free on the right and crossed to Giroud who had the ball nipped off his toe by Seamus Coleman.
The big Frenchman did get a chance two minutes later, but after turning sharply on to Gibbs’s ball in the box he blasted over the bar from close range.
It needed a moment of quality like the one with which Robin van Persie had won this fixture last season with a quite sumptuous volley to decide it again, but neither side could call on such quality this time.
Van Persie may be back at the Emirates in Arsenal’s next game winning the title on his former club’s turf, but Arsenal have their own more modest ambitions of a top-four finish.
Those remain intact, but while this was not a bad result, Wenger knows his side need to return to winning ways at Fulham on Saturday.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs (Monreal, 88), Arteta, Ramsey, Walcott (Podolski, 68), Wilshere (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 68), Cazorla, Giroud.
Subs not used: Mannone, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Gervinho.
Booked: Arteta, Monreal.
Everton: Howard, Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Baines, Gibson, Pienaar, Fellaini, Mirallas (Oviedo, 90), Barkley (Jelavic, 76), Anichebe (Naismith, 89).
Subs not used: Mucha, Heitinga, Naismith, Hitzlsperger, Neville.
Booked: Gibson, Pienaar, Barkley.
Referee: N Swarbrick
Attendance: 60, 071