Title challenge builds up steam as Arsenal pair flair with steel

Everton 1 Arsenal 2
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The Independent Football

It was a classic, rumbustious Everton finale, with Lucasz Fabianski throwing himself this way and that and earning a measure of redemption for his rather damaged reputation. But nothing can deflect from the fact that Arsenal, yesterday's worthy winners, look a substantially better and more fluent side than Manchester United, whom they now stand a point clear of in second place.

Next month pits them against both United and Chelsea in the space of 14 days and the suspicion lingers that the rest of the elite always find them out. But the events of this Premier League weekend pose the question: what elite? Wenger suggested there is a gulf between his side and the "slightly different pace" of Chelsea but with his side now as imposing as it is incisive, there are reasons to suspect that might be gamesmanship on his part.

His players of genius – Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Marouane Chamakh, weaving angular patterns in and around the Everton box in the first half – are the ones who will be remembered from this. But the sight of Alex Song, thumping into a penalty-box challenge on Tim Cahill as Everton's comeback looked like it might just be rewarded, was the one which illustrated the side's powers of combat. "Discipline, desire, determination," were the qualities Wenger said he had seen, last night. "I feel the performance today has shown we have something which is not only quality football but that is spirit and fighting spirit – ingredients if we want to challenge for the championship, we will need. We just have to keep going."

A glance at the Premier League disciplinary table – Arsenal's 37 points puts them bottom – reveals that this side of Wenger's has changed in complexion and, although Steven Pienaar's first-minute upending of Bacary Sagna reflected Everton's intention to make this a discomfiting experience, we soon had the novel sight of Moyes' team rolling through the mincer. With the wins at Blackburn and Manchester City, this result puts to bed the adage about Arsenal, now the Premier League's best away side, not caring to travel up north. The home defeats to West Bromwich and Newcastle are the enigma – the only answer to which seems to be visiting sides' greater reluctance to allow Arsenal to play.

Wenger, who insisted Nicklas Bendtner was left at home because of "a little groin problem" rather than his very public complaint about having to warm the bench, saw his side take some time to start.

Cahill had scored the first goal twice in the past three seasons in this fixture but he is struggling this season and his early miss will take some forgetting. The impressive Seamus Coleman, waved up the right flank by his manager, did so at a speed which was simply beyond Fabregas, but when the 22-year-old clipped the perfect cross Cahill jumped too early and looped his header over.

It gave Arsenal the chance to ease themselves into the game. Fabregas – creating, covering and vastly influential – combined with Song to command a midfield where Everton lacked speed of thought and intensity. Only Jack Wilshere, who spent the first half indulging in histrionics with referee Howard Webb and did not return for the second period, found it tough.

Arsenal's aesthetic was at its best when some uncharacteristically slack defending allowed them in. Pienaar allowed Nasri a shot which Tim Howard parried out to Arshavin, then Bacary Sagna was allowed to collect the Russian's pass, waltz into the box and blast in at the near post for his first goal since March 2008.

The next offender was Mikel Arteta, a generally marginalised figure, who allowed Denilson, Wilshere's replacement, to dispossess him, run into Everton's box and initiate some more intricate penalty-box geometry. Fabregas was on hand, fastening on to a ball from Chamakh and steering a slightly scuffed shot low beyond Howard.

Arsenal should have scored a third; Howard saved well from Nasri when he ran into the box and Chamakh improbably managed as bad a miss as Cahill's when he spooned Fabregas's skidding low cross over the bar from four yards. Goodison howled for a dismissal after Sébastien Squillaci hacked at Louis Saha, but Gaël Clichy was arguably heading across to cover and Moyes' heart wasn't really in any such complaint.

Everton did rally spectacularly, Fabianski parrying away substitute Jermaine Beckford's and Cahill's crashing shots, then flipping Louis Saha's ball over the bar. They also deserved the goal which came two minutes from time when Saha headed Pienaar's cross back for Cahill to lift home, right-footed. But Arsenal had stamped their message on the match and on the Premier League.

Match facts

Man of the match Song. Match rating 7/10.

Possession Everton 47% Arsenal 53%.

Shots on target Everton 8 Arsenal 9.

Referee H Webb (S Yorkshire). Attendance 36,279.