Nasri shows style amid Arsenal steel
ARSENAL are forged from a new mettle this season, a refusal to fold that helped them survive a late Everton storm here, so lifting them second in the Premier League behind Chelsea. The peacocks from the Emirates have acquired some sharper claws under their beautiful plumage.
Games against Mikel Arteta and Co are never the most physical of tests for Arsenal, certainly not like those they passed against Wolves and Blackburn, but Arsene Wenger's men needed a collective determination to return south with all three points.
News of Chelsea's stunning defeat to Sunderland made the journey even more pleasurable. Tougher assignments lie ahead for Arsenal, and there is the small matter of the north London derby imminent, but this was a highly satisfactory weekend for Arsenal, from west London to Eastlands, Villa Park to Goodison. The title race has just become interesting.
Victory over Everton was rooted not in the brilliance of one individual, although Samir Nasri added another vivid display to his lengthening gallery, but in a hunger seen all over the pitch. Although never hitting their silkiest stride, barring the fine goals from Bacary Sagna and Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal will delight in the steel in a performance of real substance.
All of Wenger's players stood up to be counted from back to front, starting with Lukasz Fabianski. The Polish 'keeper is often maligned, and often rightly so following assorted mishaps, but he was strong for Arsenal when they needed him most here, making three vital saves to repel the blue waves. No blame could be laid at Fabianski's feet when Tim Cahill played the poacher.
In front of the goalkeeper, others sweated relentlessly for the cause.
Alex Song was diligence personified in shielding the back-four. If one player in yellow particularly stood out, though, it was Nasri, the Frenchman starting on the right of Arsenal's supporting trident behind Marouane Chamakh but drifting all over. Nasri was as full of running in the first minute as the last, constantly stretching Everton and denied a deserved goal after one wonderful break only by the reflexes of Tim Howard.
Jack Wilshere was neat and tidy in the first half until being caught by Johnny Heitinga, and failing to return for the second period. Wenger stressed his decision to replace the teenager with Denilson was simply tactical, introducing somebody faster to the second ball.
Wilshere had taken a couple of knocks, including an accidental Cahill hand to the face, before Heitinga's cynical check, not the most brutal of offences but still earning a caution from Howard Webb, who has history with Heitinga.
The Dutchman was anchoring Everton's midfield, having to deal with both Wilshere and Fabregas and it was a heavy workload. Cahill did drop back but Wenger's 4-2-3-1 system outwitted David Moyes's 4-4-1-1.
Arsenal enjoyed the better chances of the first half, Nasri sneaking in after 10 minutes and seeing his shot blocked by Sylvain Distin. A trademark flowing move, the ball speeding between Fabregas, Chamakh and Nasri culminated in a Wilshere shot diverted to safety by Phil Jagielka. Arsenal were building, moving the ball upfield efficiently, although not with the usual brush-strokes that can vivify their match-day canvas.
They had still to beware the occasional Everton breakaway, most notably in the opening half when the excellent Seamus Coleman sprinted 50 yards, effortlessly escaping Fabregas before crossing for Cahill. It was the type of delivery the Australian relishes, an aerial ball begging to be attacked.
Showing rare profligacy with a header, Cahill sent his effort over.
Reprieved, Arsenal seized the lead 10 minutes from the interval, exploiting hesitancy in Everton's back-line. Howard failed to deal properly with a Nasri shot, shovelling the ball to his left where Andrey Arshavin lurked. The Russian, calmly ignoring Leighton Baines, rolled the ball into the path of Sagna, whose drive flew past Howard. Sagna raced 80 yards to celebrate with Arsenal's raucous travelling support, who leafed lustily through their song-book, including suggesting to the locals that "you've only come to see Eboue''.
Everton fans had certainly come hoping to see more of a cohesive threat yet technical players of the quality of Arteta were guilty of wasting possession.
Acquiring the ball following lax play by the hosts, Arsenal doubled their lead shortly after the break. Denilson and Chamakh combined to set up Fabregas, who placed his shot past Howard.
Arsenal then demonstrated their new sleeves-rolled-up capabilities. So determined was Fabregas to close down Distin that the pair collided, earning Arsenal's captain a caution from Webb as Goodison bayed for red. Distin then caught Chamakh, who climbed to his feet and soldiered on. Denilson then bowled over Steven Pienaar while Song knocked over Baines. Arsenal were more Haye than Harrison yesterday.
As befits a team sent out by Moyes, Everton refused to go quietly. Attacking the Gwladys Street end, they kept going and Song could easily have conceded a penalty when blocking Louis Saha's shot.
Moyes went for broke, went for a 4-3-3 formation with Saha flanked by Yakubu and Jermaine Beckford right, setting up a thrilling finale.
Coleman embarked on another odyssey stopped only by Song's covering tackle. Then Cahill lifted in a ball to Beckford, who unleashed a ferocious shot that Fabianski athletically pushed away. Arsenal's 'keeper was immense in the dying stages, saving from Pienaar, stopping Baines' cross from reaching Yakubu, before thwarting Saha.
Fabianski was finally beaten when Saha, climbing on Song, headed back across for Cahill to hook home. As the tension mounted, as four minutes of injury time unfolded, Sagna went toe to toe with Beckford, reflecting Arsenal's determination. Battling, battling Arsenal. (© Daily Telegraph, London)