Happy Saturday Gooners. The clocks may go back tonight but Arsenal continue to march forward in the title race.
Goals by Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny secured a 2-1 win over Everton at a rain-soaked Emirates stadium today, to make the Gunners league leaders for the first time in 20 months.
Of course, one of the two Manchester clubs could dislodge us from the top of the table as early as tomorrow, but for tonight at least, we can enjoy being in pole position in the Premier League.
After Tuesday night’s exertions against Bayern Munich, Arsene Wenger decided/was forced to freshen things up; he recalled Gabriel in place of Per Mertesacker, who was missing through illness, and as expected, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came into the side for the injured Aaron Ramsey. Giroud started up front at the expense of a benched Theo Walcott for the third and final change to our starting line-up from midweek.
And it was the Frenchman who gave us the lead after 36 minutes. Mesut Ozil drifted to the right and his precise, lofted ball into the centre was glanced home by Giroud. It was a superb assist from Ozil and typified another classy, hard-running performance by our German playmaker.
Two minutes later, we doubled our lead in similar circumstances. Alexis Sanchez was brought down on the left, Santi Cazorla took the resulting free-kick and produced a wicked, in-swinging ball for Koscielny to nod past Tim Howard.
To be fair, for both goals, the Everton defending was woeful, as our Gallic duo took it in turns to saunter into Howard’s six-yard box unchallenged, yet we did look a threat from set plays all game long and it seems being more productive from these situations is something the squad have discussed and worked on in training.
Then, just before half-time, Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up possession on the edge of the Everton box with Hector Bellerin unmarked and in space to his right, but chose to shoot rather than play in his team-mate on the overlap. His effort was blocked and the visitors launched a counter attack which resulted in them pulling a goal back. The lively, if a little divey, Gerard Deulofeu led the break and picked out Ross Barkley with a neat, cross-field pass.
Barkley strode forward and looked to have lost momentum but composed himself to fire a left-footed strike from just outside the area and saw his effort deflected past a helpless Petr Cech off an attempted block by Gabriel. It was unlucky on the Brazilian but meant we went from nearly being three up and having the game won by half-time, to facing another difficult 45 minutes after the interval.
Both sides had chances in the second half; Giroud saw an acrobatic attempt after a headed one-two with Oxlade-Chamberlain saved by Howard, before hitting the bar with another effort. Substitute Mathieu Flamini headed straight at their goalkeeper when he found himself on the end of a pin-point, right-wing cross by Sanchez, and Ozil hit the outside of a post after great individual work on the right.
Everton also hit the woodwork, with Romelu Lukaku’s header caressing the top of the cross-bar for what was the closest they came to an equaliser. Cech once again proved his worth by racing off his line and closing down the angle for Deulofeu when the former Barcelona man had a clear sight of our goal, and Gabriel produced a crucial tackle in our box towards the end of the game before celebrating his intervention like he’d just scored our third.
Despite visibly dropping off physically in the second half, we managed to see out the win and I have to say we have gone from being castigated regularly for supposedly having a lack of ‘know-how’ in recent seasons, to a team brimful of brains. In attack Sanchez sets the hard-working tone, Francis Coquelin and Cazorla are efficient and industrious in the middle of the park and Cech’s presence in goal is huge in more than one sense.
There seems to be a shared vision and determination amongst the players and it’s exciting to see. We now travel to Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup on, er, Wednesday*, and I’m sure we’ll see wholesale changes to afford most of our first-choice selection a very well-deserved rest after what’s been a perfect week.
Back with more thoughts on the game and post-match reaction on Sunday.
* Correction: we play The Owls on Tuesday.