x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Fired up Gunners climb to second spot

Arsenal climbed into second place in the Premier League as goals by Bacary Sagna and Cesc Fabregas earned Arsene Wenger's side a 2-1 win at Everton on Sunday.

Louis Saha of Everton, left, is challenged by Bacary Sagna of Arsenal during their match at Goodison Park.
Louis Saha of Everton, left, is challenged by Bacary Sagna of Arsenal during their match at Goodison Park.

LIVERPOOL // Rewind seven days and the logical assumption was that Arsenal’s title bid had reached an untimely and undignified end.

As Newcastle United became the second promoted team to win at the Emirates Stadium already this season, a familiar tale of unfulfilled potential was being told. Two wins later, Arsenal have reclaimed second place.

They have demonstrated character in abundance, to accompany the expected quality, and a topsy-turvy season is now lending itself to very different conclusions.

They are Chelsea’s closest challengers, unrecognisable from the underachievers who stumbled on their own turf.

Bacary Sagna’s first goal for 32 months was followed by Cesc Fabregas’s fifth of another fruitful campaign, one struck with force and the other with finesse.

Victory at Goodison Park, however, requires more than touch and technique, as Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, acknowledged. “The most important qualities we have shown are discipline, commitment, togetherness, desire and 100 per cent focus for 90 minutes,” he said.

“I feel the performance has shown we have something that is not only quality football but spirit and fighting spirit. 

“They are ingredients you need if you are to fight for the championship.”

Indeed, there is a new-found toughness to his side. They boast the division’s best away record and overcoming Everton at Goodison Park, like beating Manchester City at Eastlands, suggested Arsenal’s players have grown up.

Samir Nasri, who had a tendency to fade into the background, has a new-found power and potency. Twice he surged through the Everton defence, although Sylvain Distin and Tim Howard denied him a goal.

With his bleach-blond hairstyle, Alex Song was bound to be conspicuous, but his forceful interpretation of the defensive midfielder’s duties meant he stood out anyway.

Then there is the man who tends to be the wild card but, as at Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday, proved the trump card: Lukasz Fabianski, the goalkeeper who has veered from weak link to bastion of dependability over the course of a week, was a bystander for much of the match but excellent at the end.

He tipped Jermaine Beckford’s half-volley wide, parried Steven Pienaar’s shot and stopped Louis Saha finding the top corner.

Tim Cahill’s late, and typically predatory, finish could have ensured a very different outcome but for Fabianski’s athleticism beforehand. “I can’t really say we deserved an awful lot,” David Moyes, the Everton manager, said. “I don’t think Arsenal were great on the day but I don’t think we were.”

Barring spells of Everton pressure that bookended the match, the Gunners were in control for the majority. The man with the dreadlocks broke the deadlock.

Thirty-five minutes had elapsed without a shot on target when Howard made the first save, parrying Nasri’s drive.

Goalkeepers are invariably taught to push the ball away from goal, and that was precisely what the American did.

However, Andrey Arshavin retrieved it near the byline and rolled the ball into the path of Sagna. Ferocity was allied with accuracy in his shot which flew past the helpless Howard.

The second was another of the goals Arsenal have trademarked, the climax of a move of wonderful, easy fluency. Denilson wandered forward to find Marouane Chamakh. The target man flicked a pass into the path of Fabregas and he caressed a half-volley past Howard.

Thereafter, Chamakh somehow missed from four yards, skewing a shot over the bar after Fabregas found the unmarked striker. It formed part of an eventful afternoon for the Arsenal captain as Howard Webb, the referee, was kept busy.

To Everton’s annoyance, he only brandished yellow cards to Sebastien Squillaci, for bringing down Saha, and Fabregas, for a challenge on Distin that had echoes of his rather more reckless lunge at Wolves’ Stephen Ward on Wednesday.  “There were things that maybe on another day might have gone in Everton’s favour but didn’t,” Moyes added cryptically.

Factor in the weekend setbacks for Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea and, over the course of a weekend, much has gone in Arsenal’s favour.