The suspicion that Arsenal's title challenge is beginning to unravel can be put away, at least until the New Year. Last night they took advantage of Manchester United's slip in East London to return to the top of the Premier League and confound the notion they lack fibre when the fantasy football doesn't work.
The Gunners, who had taken only two points from their three previous away matches, had to summon much to recover from being a goal down at half-time and being reduced to 10 men after Nicklas Bendtner was sent off. The final margin flattered them but it was an important victory that gives them a two-point lead going into 2008. Everton, who had Mikel Arteta sent off in the closing minutes, have graver reflections to ponder.
The first will be how they managed to lose in such a comprehensive manner when they led at half-time thanks to Tim Cahill's goal; the second will be why their central defence disintegrated to allow Eduardo Da Silva to score twice and the substitutes Emmanuel Adebayor and Tomas Rosicky to grab two more.
David Moyes, their manager, maintained Arteta was harshly treated and that at least one of Eduardo's goals may have been assisted by an arm, but the fact remained that Santa looked positively parsimonious compared to Phil Jagielka and Joseph Yobo.
"It was hard on Everton," Arsne Wenger, the Arsenal manager, conceded, "but it was a great result for us. It showed we can battle, we have great spirit and that we can overcome problems. That's a sign of a good team."
To Eduardo he paid what some parts of Merseyside would consider to be the ultimate compliment, comparing him to a young Robbie Fowler. "He has a short back-lift and his goals don't always look spectacular," he said, "but his shots are always out of reach of the goalkeeper."
Arsenal looked nervous rather than good in the first 45 minutes, when Everton were the better side. The visitors had begun smoothly, only to be halted by Everton's opener after 20 minutes. Arteta's corner from the left was barely touched by Bacary Sagna but the deflection had a mesmerising effect on Bendtner, who was standing by the post. The Arsenal striker barely moved, allowed the ball to bounce up off his knee and Cahill, reacting quickly, lunged to force it over the line.
Arsenal needed a quick riposte after the interval and they got one within two minutes. Gaël Clichy, eschewing the Gunners' normal emphasis on style, thumped a long pass forward and Jagielka had 50 yards of flight to make his calculations. He clearly got his sums wrong because his jump was under the ball and Eduardo, who must have been more surprised than anyone to get possession, was able to control the ball with his knee and then shoot past Tim Howard with his left foot.
Everton should have regained the lead after 57 minutes when Joleon Lescott's cross from the left located Yakubu 10 yards out. The minimum requirement with the header was to get it on target but it was wide by several feet.
The implications of the miss were rammed home within a minute when Arsenal took the lead. Again it was a long ball, this time flicked on by Bendtner, and again Eduardo got the better of Jagielka, although the Everton defender could claim he slipped. Whether the Croatian striker used his arm to gain an advantage was debatable "It was handball, no question," Moyes said but there was nothing to query about his finish, a low strike below Howard's dive.
The closing minutes were a flurry of red cards Bendtner got a second caution for raking Andy Johnson's shins and Arteta was adjudged to have elbowed Cesc Fabregas in the face but the most significant action occurred in the Everton rearguard, which disintegrated for the third time with 11 minutes to go. Another long pass was misjudged by Jagielka but this time the principal blame fell on Yobo and Howard who dithered, allowing Adebayor to slip between them and walk the ball into the net.
The game looked over and that was confirmed in the closing when Rosicky shot through a crowded area to score Arsenal's fourth goal. The points to Arsenal; the message to Manchester United.Reuse content