Hold on Manchester United, Arsenal are still in the title race
Under-fire Andrey Arshavin inspires comeback to beat Everton at the Emirates
JUST when it seemed that Manchester United were about to disappear over the horizon in the title race, Arsenal kept up the chase with a fine comeback win over Everton.
Two goals in the space of six minutes turned around a game that had looked to be heading frustratingly away from the Gunners, and breathed new life into their title challenge
Goals from the substitute Andrey Arshavin and a winner from Laurent Koscielny gave Arsenal a sixth successive win in all competitions to keep alive their unlikely quadruple quest.
And while United, five points clear, are still the clear favourites, the manner of this win may instil belief at the Emirates that this could be Arsenal’s year.
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Everton led a niggly, fractious affair with Louis Saha’s controversial first-half goal and Arsenal did not seem to have the wit or the energy to break them down until the arrival of Arshavin and fellow substitute Nicklas Bendtner galvanised the Gunners and brought victory.
“The aspect of our team that has been questioned the most is our character,” said Arsene Wenger afterwards. “Recently that is where we have been most convincing.
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“We played our 10th game in a month and every time we have shown, even when football-wise our level dropped a bit, a fantastic attitude.
“It was more a never say die spirit than our usual game that made this victory, but in a competition like this that is needed.”
With the hamstrung Samir Nasri beginning his spell on the sidelines, Wenger had drafted in Tomas Rosicky to start on the left flank but otherwise reverted to his first-choice Premier League XI.
He was aware he needed to. After a month full of cup games against lower-league opposition, Everton were as good a side Arsenal had faced since Manchester City came visiting four weeks earlier. The opening quarter of an hour suggested this would be a feisty affair. First Jack Wilshere was booked for a nasty tackle on Mikel Arteta, and then Everton’s Sylvain Distin followed him into the book for a foul on Bacary Sagna.
By then Cesc Fabregas had already missed a glorious chance from a Robin van Persie backheel, and Theo Walcott had been denied by a Tim Howard block.
But midway through the half Everton took the lead in the most contentious fashion, Saha looking offside when he collected Seamus Coleman’s deflected pass but the officials deciding between them that the attempted clearance by Koscielny was sufficient reason to allow the goal.
On second viewing – one the officials of course do not have – the decision still looked debatable. Saha may have been inactive, but his mere presence was enough to distract Koscielny in to trying to clear. And when the ball was played, he was offside.
It mattered not, the referee Lee Mason consulted his linesman, but the goal stood and Arsenal instantly knew they had their work cut out.
With Arteta and the impressive Jack Rodwell pouring forward to support Saha they were always a threat in attack, while at the back Distin and the abrasive Johnny Heitinga were paying close attention to Van Persie.
Arsenal were having trouble finding space to create and badly missed Nasri’s invention. They also started the second half without Alex Song, who had worryingly not recovered from a first-half knock and made way for Abou Diaby.
Just past the hour Wenger replaced the ineffective Rosicky with Arshavin and then Wilshere with Bendtner, resorting to a 4-4-2 formation to try and change the game.
It worked but not quite in the way Wenger would have envisaged as Rodwell’s poor defensive header from a Fabregas chip forward allowed in Arshavin to volley smartly past Howard. Twenty minutes to find a winner and the Emirates roared its approval.
It didn’t take that long. Leon Osman hacked down Walcott to give Arsenal a free-kick on the edge of the box that was superbly struck by Van Persie and magnificently saved by Howard.
But from the resulting Van Persie corner Koscielny, just as he had done against Ipswich exactly a week earlier, rose unchallenged to power a header into the net. Arsenal march on.