[heading size=”14″]Arsenal 1 Everton 1 – Arsenal Held But Mertielny Axis Shines[/heading]
Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw against an ambitious Everton side, but still increased our lead at the top of the Premier League table to five points as goals from Mesut Ozil and Gerard Deulofeu cancelled each other out in a thrilling afternoon yesterday at the Emirates Stadium.
After making several changes for the midweek win over Hull, Arsene Wenger reverted back to full strength as Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Kieran Gibbs all came back into the side.
Everton started the brighter of the two teams and whilst they enjoyed plenty of possession in the Arsenal half, they failed to test Wojciech Szczesny in goal although Kevin Mirallas crossed dangerously but couldn’t find a Blue shirt in the area.
Arsenal struggled to find any early rhythm and the visitors were pressing and closing us down well, whilst their full backs were bombing forward and finding space regularly. Mirallas had a shot which went high and wide and Seamus Coleman cut in from the right, got lucky with a bounce off an Arsenal hand (ignored by Howard Webb) and shot over himself, as Everton couldn’t reflect their early dominance on the score sheet.
It was just before the half hour mark that we finally produced something of note, as Carl Jenkinson attacked the Everton box, passed to Santi Cazorla whose first time low cross from the right hand side was almost tapped in by Gibbs from a few yards out. Better from the home side, but we still struggled to keep the ball and looked a bit tense.
The intensity picked up though as the half neared its end. Aaron Ramsey played through Giroud but Tim Howard in goal for Everton came out to deny the Frenchman. Ramsey was then himself put through and again forced Howard to come out to stop us, following some neat play with Ozil and Giroud involved.
We started the second half the way we finished the first, and an Ozil cross and Wilshere flick allowed Cazorla to head at goal but it didn’t truly work Howard. Gibbs then found Giroud who cut the ball back across goal but no one was on hand to apply the finish.
Everton still looked dangerous though and Steven Pienaar forced a smart stop from Szczesny after Phil Jagielka and Ross Barkley combined. Ramsey had a volley pushed away well from the back post off a Gibbs cross and Barkley’s shot was kept out after Wilshere and Arteta both left the ball in a dangerous position, before Arsene Wenger boldly made a triple substitution as a signal of intent to try to go out and win the game.
Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini all came on for Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere and the pace of the game only increased as it reached the latter stages.
Giroud headed a Gibbs cross over the bar and Flamini drilled a shot wide of the far post following a Walcott and Giroud link up. At the other end, Mirallas was played through and forced a good save at Szczesny’s near post, with Sylvain Distin heading wide from the resulting corner.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 80th minute and it was the home side that got it. Rosicky crossed to Walcott at the far post, whose header back across goal really should’ve been put away by Giroud, but his miss only resulted in the ball falling to Ozil who side footed it into the roof of the net.
The jubilation of a potential seven-point lead at the top of the tree was short lived though, as Everton equalised a few minutes later. The ball was crossed from the left hand side, Romelu Lukaku missed the ball with a speculative bicycle kick attempt, only falling to Deulofeu, and the young Spaniard’s dipping shot beat Szczesny from inside the area.
It wasn’t done there though, as Deulofeu put through Lukaku but Szczesny came out to block well with a sliding tackle. A mix up in the Everton area between Howard and Distin then allowed Flamini a chance but he couldn’t fire it home.
Into stoppage time, Everton’s last chance came from a Lukaku effort that went over after he dispossessed Arteta too easily and charged in on goal. And Giroud almost ensured Arsenal stole the points with a stunning strike from 25 yards that rattled off the woodwork.
But 1-1 it finished, and that was probably the fairest result after a pulsating second half in which any outcome seemed possible.
Credit where it’s due, Everton were fantastic. Many teams come to the Emirates, allow us to dominate possession and wait and hope that they can catch us on the break, but from the off yesterday Everton played smart and intelligent football and were by far the better team in the opening exchange. It was no surprise that after the game it was labelled our toughest test of the season so far.
Whilst the visitors enjoyed plenty of the ball, they failed to really work Szczesny for large parts of the game and a lot of that was down to the superb performances of our centre backs. The Mertielncy axis is going from strength to strength at the minute, and the understanding they have as a pair, adding to their ability to read the game, intercept and clear out any sniff of danger surely makes them the strongest pairing in the League at the moment.
Koscielny in particular had his best game of the season, and although he has been prone to the odd rash challenge giving away penalties in the past, he seems to have matured greatly and yesterday he ensured a tough customer in Lukaku had a relatively quiet game.
We struggled in midfield though, maybe due to fatigue, maybe because we were out thought in that department or perhaps a bit of both. Arteta got caught out on more than one occasion, and neither Wilshere nor Ramsey really got into the game, the latter in particular having a rare disappointing display.
Ozil was the pick of the bunch going forward, not just because of his goal but he was constantly involved in the action. Both Cazorla and Giroud worked hard off the ball, but it didn’t quite happen for either of them in the final third.
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a bad point although it’s fair to be disappointed that after going in front with ten minutes to go, we couldn’t see the game out.
But we’re not going to win every game this season, and as Wilshere said after the game, “if you can’t win, don’t lose” so credit to the team for getting the point that in previous years we might’ve missed out on. They all add up, and with Chelsea losing and Manchester City drawing, it hasn’t done us any harm in our continued push towards our first trophy in eight years.
Next up we go to Napoli for our final Champions League group match on Wednesday, needing to avoid a 3-0 defeat to see us through but I think we can be confident of getting a positive result that would also ensure we top the group.
But with our trip to Man City very shortly after this, it’s a game in which we could see further rotation from Wenger and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the likes of Rosicky and Walcott start from the off as we need to manage fatigue in this busy December schedule.
That won’t put us at a disadvantage though, and no matter whom we start with there’s a belief in this squad that we can go out and beat anybody, anywhere.
Let’s hope that continues.