Van Persie is life and sole spark of party
Arsenal 1 Everton 0: Free-scoring Dutchman saves 125th birthday celebration from falling flat.
Arsenal's 125th birthday celebrations were drifting into anti-climax when Robin van Persie decided it was time for a party piece. As Alex Song floated a diagonal pass forward, the Dutchman slipped on to the blind side of a retreating Phil Jagielka and with immaculate technique volleyed his shot low inside the far post. In the stands Thierry Henry, the subject of a statue outside the stadium on Friday, led the applause, although until then he and the other old boys who had taken part in a parade of heroes before kick-off must have been thinking what a dull old party it was.
Van Persie is hoping to match Henry's record of 34 goals in a calendar year and now sits only one short. Fifteen of them have come this season, which is as many as Everton have managed between them. They may have been more frequent visitors than anyone in those 125 years but it is some time since they enjoyed the experience; this was their 14th defeat in 16 trips to the Emirates or Highbury, the last success having come when Arsène Wenger was still a glint in David Dein's eye.
Yesterday a more ambitious or resourceful team might have been able to exploit the fact that Wenger did not have a fit full-back available. Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen did duty there and were troubled no more than the increasingly extrovert goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who at the end of the game fell to his knees to kiss Van Persie's left foot.
That was as much action as was required of him all afternoon, Everton not managing a shot on target. Right at the end two young substitutes, Magaye Gueye and Conor McAleny, each hit a cross-shot wide and earlier Phil Neville curled one over the bar, but that effort in the 66th minute finally jolted Arsenal – or Van Persie – into authoritative action.
"You will say we are Van Persie dependent," Wenger said – which would be fair comment, as it happens – "and he delivered something special. Robin said he wasn't on his best of days but he was efficient. It's the tradition that scorers get the plaudits and he deserves that. And credit to Song for a fantastic ball. At half-time the players were a bit disappointed we hadn't scored but I'm pleased we kept our composure and didn't give a goal away."
The win was Arsenal's seventh in eight games, continuing an impressive revival from the misery of the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, which is beginning to look like an unlikely blip from a long time ago. "The spirit is there, and consistency and focus, so we will see how far we can go," Wenger said. "We started from so deep in the table that no one could have predicted we'd be where we are now." That is in fourth position, splitting Tottenham and Chelsea, at least until the latter meet Manchester City tomorrow and possibly afterwards, too. Then Arsenal can test themselves at City next Sunday.
As for Everton, not satisfied with anything but the best according to their club motto, they are grateful for small mercies these days. Friday's headline that they had lost £500,000 last year surely required the word "only" and it seemed to be a matter for some satisfaction that debts have not risen beyond £49.4 million.
Similarly David Moyes, a manager who bears all this with great fortitude, said: "Arsenal are full of confidence right now and we were fortunate to go in at nil-nil at half-time. But when they scored we were looking the more likely. We'd weathered a lot and had some great recovery defending. But today was always going to be tough and the players acquitted themselves quite well."
From early on, distinguished Championship-winning guests from Bob Wilson and Frank McLintock to Ian Wright, Robert Pires and Henry were witnesses to one of the current Arsenal's worst failings, too many passes when a shot was on. They were handicapped by offsides, then bad decisions when allowed to go on: Theo Walcott tried to find Gervinho, only for Tony Hibbert to touch the pass away from him; Gervinho in a similarly promising position also elected to pass and found Van Persie had strayed forward too soon.
Tim Howard made one save from Gervinho, who was clean through, and after half-time from Walcott, who like Song had an excellent game. After that, however, the home crowd were just becoming a little restless as Moyes took off Louis Saha, pushing Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini further forward and threatening briefly to reap an unexpected reward, before Song and Van Persie conjured a champagne moment at last. "We were historical, we won 1-0," Wenger said with a satisfied smile.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen; Song, Arteta; Walcott, Ramsey, Gervinho; Van Persie.
Everton (4-4-1-1): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Heitinga, Baines; Coleman, Neville, Fellaini, Bilyaletdinov; Cahill; Saha.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Song (Arsenal)
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