Football: Arsenal exploit their stroke of good fortune

Arsenal 3 Everton 1
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Arsenal completed a redwash for the Premiership's top three yesterday as they emulated Liverpool and Manchester United's Saturday performances with a resounding victory of their own.

It kept them three points behind Liverpool with a game in hand. With Manchester United tucked in between them, the red trio are now four points clear of the chasing pack. Maybe this most open of Premiership campaigns is beginning to tighten.

Everton, though, travelled home nursing a strong sense of injustice. After half an hour, with the game goalless, Nick Barmby had a spectacular goal ruled out for offside. Television replays showed he was well onside.

Arsenal, reprieved, went on to score three times in 13 second-half minutes through Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Paul Merson. Everton's reply, from Duncan Ferguson, was far too late to matter, even on a weekend of dramatic comebacks.

Arsenal's architect was Bergkamp, who capped an outstanding display with an exquisite goal. He has taken time to settle here but is now in intoxicating form. Alas for Arsenal, he is now suspended for three matches.

John Hartson is still serving his suspension and Arsenal will now be without David Platt for three weeks too. He was carried off with a badly pulled hamstring after an hour. Arsene Wenger confirmed he will not be available for England's World Cup match with Italy on 12 February.

Ian Wright was also withdrawn with a minor hamstring pull but, said Wenger, he should be fit for Arsenal's next match, at West Ham on 29 January.

Both sides needed a victory. Arsenal had only won once in six Premiership matches, Everton had lost the last four. Yet Arsenal were second and Everton eighth, an indication of the equality, if not the quality, of the Premiership. Injuries and suspensions had played a part. Arsenal had not fielded David Seaman and Wright in the same side for two months, Everton had been weakened in defence and central midfield.

The signings of Terry Phelan and Claus Thomsen had eased Everton's problems and with Arsenal also back to full strength neither side looked short of confidence. The early stages were characterised by several sweeping moves with neat interplay from both teams. Chances were rarer, with a tame shot from Paul Merson the only time either goalkeeper was exercised in the first 20 minutes.

This situation was unlikely to last. One of the joys of watching Everton over the years is that, however well or badly they are playing, at some stage you will be treated to an example of Neville Southall's enduring brilliance.

Sure enough, after 21 minutes, Merson found space on the edge of the area and sought to chip the Welsh veteran. The ball appeared to be going in but Southall hung in the air to claw it away. Four minutes later he showed fallibility, dropping a cross under pressure from Platt but recovered in time to catch Wright's attempted chip. Then came Everton's "goal". David Unsworth curled in a cross from the left, Ferguson mis-hit a volley and Barmby stole in to volley spectacularly past Seaman. But Everton's celebrations were quelled as Keith Burge spotted a yellow flag raised in front of the West Stand. Offside said the referee's assistant. But it was not.

Everton continued to press with Ferguson bringing two saves, one excellent, from Seaman. At the other end, Wright missed after Phelan had hesitated. It was Wright's last act, but instead of Arsenal being emasculated by his half-time departure it was Everton's defence which was unhinged. Perhaps they subconsciously relaxed; if so, it was an error as grievous as the referee's assistant's had been.

Vieira, Bergkamp and Merson all went close before Dixon, returning for the first time for two months, chipped the ball in to Bergkamp. The finish, a first-time side-foot volley, was immaculate.

Two minutes later Everton only cleared a corner as far as Vieira, who thrashed the ball back past Southall. Eleven minutes on, Everton sealed their own fate. Unsworth gave the ball away to Bergkamp. He ran 40 yards but Southall stood up well to save, only for Merson, following up, to score.

Some Everton heads went down and, for Southall, it was fast becoming a reprise of his two international encounters against the Dutch. Three times he denied Bergkamp, once brilliantly. Merson, too, was thwarted as Arsenal continued to pour forward.

It was a graphic illustration of the change in philosophy wrought by Wenger. Under George Graham, leads were there to be preserved, not built on.

As Arsenal finally eased up, and Everton rallied, Ferguson rose to head in Barmby's corner. It gave the scoreline a fairer gloss but it was hardly a consolation.

Goals: Bergkamp (56) 1-0; Vieira (57) 2-0; Merson (70) 3-0; Ferguson (90) 3-1.

Arsenal (3-5-2): Seaman; Keown, Adams, Bould; Parlour, Merson, Vieira, Platt (Hughes, 63), Winterburn; Berg- kamp, Wright (Dixon h-t). Substitutes not used: Linighan, Shaw, Lukic (gk).

Everton (4-4-2): Southall; Barrett, Watson, Unsworth, Phelan; Kanchelskis (Branch, 63), Stuart, Thomsen, Speed; Barmby, Ferguson. Substitutes not used: Rideout, Grant, Short, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Bookings: Everton Ferguson, Watson.

Man of the match: Bergkamp.

Attendance: 38,095.