Arsenal are back on top of the Premier League.
They were restored to the summit thanks to Manchester United’s defeat and then their own remarkable 4-1 comeback in a tempestuous game at Goodison Park on Saturday evening that saw both sides reduced to 10 men.
Tim Cahill’s goal deservedly gave the home side the advantage at the break. But within 12 minutes of the restart Arsenal had snatched the lead thanks to a fine brace from Eduardo, his first strikes in the Premier League.
Nicklas Bendtner’s dismissal in the 73rd minute threatened to unsettle the visitors as they started to look to the final whistle. But, in the end, they were handed a third goal when Emmanuel Abedayor profited from hesitancy between Joseph Yobo and Tim Howard.
Mikel Arteta threw out an arm at Cesc Fabregas in the 84th minute and also saw red. It undermined Everton’s late rally and substitute Tomas Rosicky added a fourth in injury time.
This was far from Arsenal’s best performance of the season but it did illustrate, perhaps more than any other game this term, the type of qualities they will need to win the title.
And, of course, they are now clear at the top by two points.
Wenger made three changes from the side held to a 0-0 draw at Portsmouth on Boxing Day. All smacked of rotation in order to accommodate the busy Christmas period. Emmanuel Eboue was rested entirely while Adebayor and Rosicky were left on the bench. As a result Bendtner and Eduardo were paired up front while Abou Diaby came in on the left. Alex Hleb went from support striker to right midfielder.
Just before kick-off, the visiting Arsenal supporters heard confirmation of Manchester United’s defeat at West Ham. It meant Wenger’s men would resume the lead of the Premier League with victory this evening. That was no formality however. They faced an Everton side who had a record of W12 D2 L1 in their last 15 games.
The start was scrappy. Arsenal were lively and inquisitive in the opening minutes however the best chance they conjured up was a goal-bound Fabregas shot that was blocked on the edge of the area. In fact Everton keeper Tim Howard would have worry-free first half.
As the game wore on, the home side took over – though Almunia was hardly overworked either. Gradually Arteta and Cahill started to find space in midfield while Yakubu’s muscle was proving a handful for the Arsenal defence. In the 19th minute the Nigerian went shoulder to shoulder with Kolo Toure, the visitors’ strongest player, and won a corner on the left-hand side.
Arteta whipped it into the six-yard box and the Arsenal defence hesitated. That was all that was required. The ball bobbled to the far post where a combination of Yakubu’s head and Cahill’s foot turned it home off the post. Eventually the strike was credited to the Australian but, from an Arsenal perspective, it had been all too easy.
Everton had been rightly confident before the goal. Afterwards they were full of vigour and determination. Steven Pienaar pulled an effort six yards wide of goal, Phil Neville drove over following a flowing move and, just before the whistle, Arteta forced a low save from Almunia.
Arsenal rallied briefly as the seconds ticked away but they could hardly argue with the scoreline at the interval.But what a change after the restart.
Three minutes in, Clichy’s long ball forward caught the home defence napping. It flew over the backtracking Phil Jagielka and fell to the scampering Eduardo who showed commendable nerve to steer home his shot under pressure from three recovering defenders.
It was the Croatian’s first goal in 10 Premier League appearances and Arsenal’s 800th in the competition under Wenger.
Everton were suddenly subdued while the visitors had a spring in their step and a bite in their challenge.
However just before Arsenal took the lead, the home side spurned a superb chance to score a second themselves. Joleon Lescott fired over a cross from the left and Yakubu escaped from Toure to steer a powerful header wide.
Still Everton had already paid painful witness to Eduardo’s poaching ability and, in the 58th minute, he added a second. The 24-year-old collected Bendtner’s flick on the edge of the area, nudged the ball past Jagielka, ran around the other side and then slipped the ball past Howard.
A wonderful finish from an expert poacher.
Everton were stung. They did not deserve to be losing on the balance of play while Arsenal were attempting to pull off to a classic snatch-and-grab — the staple diet of Premier League champions.
However their chances of a clean getaway were dented in the 73rd minute when Bendtner picked up a second booking for a foul on Andy Johnson.
It was certainly a rash challenge but the dismissal was all the more distressing as Adebayor had been waiting to come on for a couple of minutes. With Eduardo on a hat-trick, it would seem safe to assume the Dane was about to be substituted.
The red card only added to the mounting Everton momentum. Almunia saved from both Johnson’s flick-on and Lee Carsley’s low shot in the 76th minute.
However for all their reputation for flowing football, it was a route-one goal that sealed the game two minutes later. Adebayor nipped in as Joseph Yobo tried to shepherd Almunia’s long punt forward towards his keeper. The Togolese striker’s touch bounced off Howard’s leg and fell kindly for him to race clear and tap the ball into the empty net.
The drama was not over. Six minutes from time Arteta received a straight red card for lashing out at Fabregas. The second dismissal brought a simmering game to the boil in the final few minutes
Rosicky fired in a fourth at the death. That was harsh on Everton who had bossed the game for much of the first half.
But, as well as a fluent side, Arsenal are a ruthless side these days.
And they are all the better for it.