Arsenal defeat Everton to replace Spurs in third place
Everton 0 Arsenal 1: Arsène Wenger argued, to a few sniggers from the back of the room, that finishing fourth in the Premier League is the same as winning a trophy. However, finishing third ahead of Tottenham, who may not even qualify for the Champions League, would be acclaimed with something of the fervour of the club's three Doubles.
It was not a great Arsenal performance but it was a significant night. This, their fifth straight victory, took them a point ahead of a Spurs side that had supposedly surpassed them for the beauty of their football and the potential of their squad. When Tottenham went two goals up at the Emirates Stadium less than a month ago, Arsenal faced falling 13 points behind.
Nevertheless, this was a hard slog against an Everton team for whom a real trophy in the still-shimmering shape of the FA Cup is still a possibility. The start suggested that this was all there was in the mind of David Moyes's footballers but Everton fought with considerable passion and but for a highly contentious offside flag might well have drawn.
Arsenal are not a side that can ever win ugly, although there were occasions on which their make-up seemed to slip. This was a victory shot through with the kind of resolute defending not always associated with Wenger's teams. "You have seen a side of us that a lot of people don't know," said the Arsenal manager. "But it was the only way we were going to get a result. We didn't panic and we defended well on crosses which is not usually our strong point.
"In the last month we have taken six points in the city of Liverpool and it was 180 minutes of intense fight but the most difficult part of it is still to come. We must keep our humility and our focus." He added that in the early part of the season he had been forced to answer questions on whether his club would avoid relegation.
Arsenal began as if they believed Everton could be knocked out within the opening 10 minutes as they fashioned three early chances, any one of which could have led to a breakthrough.
Robin van Persie, naturally enough, was involved in all of them. One shot was blocked by Tim Howard and a cushioned header should have provided an opening for Aaron Ramsey. The goal was untypically Arsenal in that it came from a corner, delivered by Van Persie, and met with a great, muscular leap by Thomas Vermaelen.
Three years ago, Arsenal had come to Goodison on the opening weekend of the season and scored six. After the opening exchanges there would have been few in the ground betting against a repetition.
Everton, however, found their footing and but for a decision from the assistant referee, John Flynn, the visitors would have been punished for it. Moyes, checking the tapes afterwards, counted five palpably incorrect offside decisions against his team but this was the most serious.
The "goal" was put away by Royston Drenthe with his own brand of Amsterdam cool and it finished off a very well-worked Everton move that pivoted around Tim Cahill. However, as he passed to Drenthe, Nikica Jelavic was ruled by Flynn to have been standing in an offside position. Drenthe was clearly onside and whether the Croatian striker had been interfering with play was something to be debated through the interval and into the night beyond.
Coincidentally, this was the same linesman who had flagged for a penalty against Rio Ferdinand when the Manchester United captain appeared to have executed a perfectly fair tackle on Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa in November. It cost United two points.
With every decision and every flag, Goodison's sense of injustice grew. Then, Van Persie pounced on Kieran Gibbs's header, lashing it on to the post before looking up to see the flag raised for offside. Television suggested otherwise as Mr Flynn continued his one-man campaign for the use of video technology.
Booked Everton Cahill, Pienaar. Arsenal Sagna.
Man of the match Vermaelen
Referee L Mason (Lancashire)