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Smells like team spirit as Koscielny seals Arsenal comeback

Arsenal 2 Everton 1

Arshavin 70, Koscielny 75; Saha 24

Everton pushed them all the way thanks to a controversial first half goal by Louis Saha, but Arsenal showed great character to produce a spirited fightback to secure all three points in a feisty match at the Emirates Stadium. Substitute Andrey Arshavin and defender Laurent Koscielny scored in the space of five minutes to turn the match on its head and keep the Londoners in touch with Premier League leaders Manchester United.

After fielding a shadow XI in the FA Cup on Sunday, Arsène Wenger reverted to his strongest available side. Tomáš Rosický came into the team in place of the injured Samir Nasri, with only Koscielny retained from the side which beat Huddersfield:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Wilshere

Fàbregas

Walcott – van Persie – Rosický

Everton arrived at the Emirates unbeaten in five games since a New Year’s Day defeat at Stoke, while Arsenal had kept four consecutive Premier League clean sheets. In the reverse fixture in November, Arsenal had won 2-1 courtesy of goals by Bacary Sagna and captain Cesc Fàbregas.

Fellaini the immovable barrier

Everton enjoyed the better of a feisty opening period, working feverishly and tackling hard – sometimes too hard – to deny Arsenal time and space on the ball. In particular, Marouane Fellaini was a colossus in the centre of the park, winning tackles and regularly breaking up play in front of his back four. Arsenal looked sluggish and lightweight by comparison in an uneventful first 15 minutes, although Robin van Persie looked sharp as he ventured across the forward line.

It was no surprise that van Persie was involved in the first real chance of the match on 16 minutes, receiving the ball from Fàbregas and returning it to him via his heel, only for the captain to snatch his shot wide. Soon after, Theo Walcott surged into the box but saw his angled shot saved by the legs of Tim Howard.

Should Saha's goal have been allowed to stand?

Everton, for all their tenacity in midfield, had not mustered a single shot on goal in the opening quarter of the game when they took the lead in controversial fashion. Séamus Coleman chipped the ball forward towards Saha, who was two yards offside. Koscielny stretched out a leg but only succeeded in helping it on to the Everton forward, who swivelled smartly on the edge of the box and drove a low shot beyond Wojciech Szczęsny‘s left hand.

After consulting with his assistant, referee Lee Mason awarded the goal, despite the fact that Koscielny only played the ball because of the presence of the offside Saha behind him. Should the goal have stood? Even experienced journalists in the Emirates press box weren’t entirely sure, as the Mirror‘s John Cross indicated on Twitter. It seems that, because Koscielny made a deliberate attempt to play the ball, that the decision to allow the goal to stand was technically correct. Ultimately it didn’t matter because it was awarded. But at times like this the offside rule really could do with both simplification and clarification. The officials’ job is tough enough as it is without there being so many shades of grey.

Without ever looking in control of the game, Arsenal nonetheless created a number of chances before half-time. Johan Djourou flicked on a van Persie corner, which a sliding Koscielny just failed to connect with. Fàbregas, having left his shooting boots at home, hurried another effort off target. And Jack Wilshere lofted one of his trademark chipped passes through for van Persie, but Howard charged off his line and did enough to force the Dutchman to scoop the ball over.

Everton, however, remained well organised and defended in numbers, making life extremely difficult for the hosts, who were struggling to get the ball into wide positions and were mostly left trying to thread the eye of a needle through the middle. They did create one more opportunity of their own before half-time, but after Leighton Baines flicked a long ball on for Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Szczęsny responded quickly to smother the chance.

Second half comeback

At half-time, Abou Diaby replaced Alex Song, who had picked up a thigh injury.

Arshavin's fifth league goal of the season turned the game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Both sides continued where they had left off. Saha was left increasingly isolated up front, while Arsenal continued to prod and probe, dominating possession and creating virtually all of the chances. Rosický, who had an otherwise ineffectual game, spun away from his marker, scooted forward and unleashed a shot from 30 yards struck with all the confidence of a man who has not scored in more than 13 months. Van Persie was hauled down just outside the box by his compatriot Johnny Heitinga, only to blast the resultant free kick into the wall. Substitute Arshavin set up van Persie again, only to shoot wide. Diaby was similarly off target from the edge of the box.

Although Howard was not forced into making a serious save during this period, the pressure was undoubtedly building as Everton increasingly abandoned any semblance of offensive threat. Finally, the dam broke. Fàbregas dinked a ball into the Everton area, which Jack Rodwell inadvertently nodded straight into the path of Arshavin. The little Russian, so bereft of confidence in recent weeks, lashed the ball past Howard first time.

Koscielny clinched all three points with a header from a corner (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Everton didn’t know whether to stick or twist, and suddenly found their goal under siege as a resurgent Arsenal pressed forward in search of a second. Nicklas Bendtner, who had replaced Wilshere, found space for an overhead kick, but his shot lacked power and was easily held. Then van Persie whipped a 30-yard free kick over the wall, which Howard struggled to tip over. The Dutchman took the subsequent corner and Koscielny, gifted a free header at the back post, made no mistake in giving Arsenal the lead.

Stunned, the visitors lacked the wherewithal to mount a serious challenge in the remaining 15 minutes, and despite bringing on Victor Anichebe to supplement the attack, Arsenal had to endure little more than a couple of mildly nervy moments to see out a spirited, battling win. A vital victory? Certainly. A pivotal moment in their season? Perhaps.

Post-match reaction & analysis

After the match, Wenger praised the spirit of his side:

I’m very happy today because we won against a good Everton side. We had problems in the first half getting started. I feel we had chances but our game lacked a bit of cohesion in the passing and we lost some balls down to good closing-down from Everton and as well to some technical mistakes. And today I would say it was more a victory of a team with fantastic spirit and a never-say-die attitude than our usual game. But that of course is needed in a competition like that.

I am very happy because this is maybe the aspect of the team which has been questioned the most, and recently that’s where we have been the most convincing. In smaller games at Leeds, against Ipswich, against Huddersfield. We played our tenth game today in one month and every time we have shown, even when football-wise our level dropped a little bit, we have always shown fantastic attitude.

He was adamant that Everton’s goal should not have been allowed to stand:

For me the first goal was offside. If someone can demonstrate mathematically to me that it was not, I am ready to accept it. But it was offside because the pass was destined to Saha at the start. He was three yards offside. I think Koscielny touched the ball and they interpreted it as a pass. I interpreted it as a deflection. But clearly the intention was to give the ball to Saha who was offside and he took advantage of his offside position.

Finally, he commented on Song’s injury, which appeared to have been caused in a collision with teammate Koscielny:

He cannot walk. I don’t know what he has got. He was kicked, I think it was by Koscielny, he knocks out everybody in our team. So we have to see how he responds to that in the next days, but he cannot walk at the moment.

This was by no means a great Arsenal win, with the midfield in particular struggling to control the imposing Fellaini. But it was exactly the sort of game which a title-contending side needs to win, and the sort of victory which critics have for too long accused Wenger’s side – with some justification – of being unable to produce.

Despite Saha’s goal Arsenal’s defence looked fairly solid, restricting an admittedly unambitious Everton to just four attempts on goal. In particular, Gaël Clichy has come back into something approaching his best form in recent games, regaining his defensive solidity and regularly charging from one end of the field to another. Van Persie looked hungry, and Arshavin continued his rehabilitation from his recent slump, turning the game in Arsenal’s favour with plenty of energy and desire after he came on. Rosický, however, looked a long way short of full effectiveness, while Walcott, a couple of long gallops aside, was too often a peripheral figure.

Nonetheless, the completion of the double over an Everton side who always trouble the big teams is nothing to be sniffed at. In recent weeks they have won at Manchester City, beaten Tottenham, and twice drawn with Chelsea in league and FA Cup. Six points out of six represents an excellent return which few will match this season.

Next up is a trip to an Andy Carroll-less Newcastle, with the following three Premier League games all at home. With four of Manchester United’s next five league fixtures away from home – including back-to-back trips to Chelsea and Liverpool – Arsenal will have every chance to close the five-point gap at the top of the table.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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