Cometh the hour, cometh the men. All of them, including Roberto Martinez.
Certainly in the context of the Premier League and the promised land of the Champions League, this was rightly billed as Everton's biggest game since the second leg of the qualifying playoff against Villarreal in 2005. It demanded an immense performance from a group of players who, true to their manager's word, appear to have timed their cohesion, their synergy and the peak of their powers at a perfect moment in the season and the Blues delivered in dream fashion.
Everton's resurgence as a force in the race to finish in the top four has dragged a reluctant media into grudging acceptance that Martinez's men have what it takes to break that stubborn glass ceiling. Still, much of the aftermath of this seismic match will centre around Arsenal – their failings, their lack of fight, their impotence in the Gunners' worst result in this fixture for 25 years – but this was a display of such power, attacking co-ordination, tactical mastery, and single-minded tenacity that the Londoners never really stood a chance.
It's true that in any match, a team will have opportunities to shine and impose their will on their opposition and Arsenal had theirs. They were brief and they met unflappable resistance from Tim Howard and the Blues' back line but, crucially, the visitors were starting from the base of a mountain created by an irressistible Everton who were 2-0 up by the 34th minute and who would go on to have the game killed off at 3-0 with a little more than an hour played. It was, quite simply, brilliant.
Backed by just the kind of raucous din you would hope for, Everton started on the front foot and Leon Osman, deputising as captain once more in the absence of Phil Jagielka, almost got them off to a spectacular start, dipping a delicious half volley inches wide of the far post from the corner of the penalty area.
Unfortunately for him, though, his afternoon would come to a premature end just five minutes later when, in the follow-through of a late, ill-advised sliding tackle on Bacary Sagna, he appeared to catch a boot to the face which would force him off down the tunnel to receive stitches in a laceration below his eyebrow.
In footballing terms, it proved to be something of a blessing in disguise for the Blues because his replacement, Ross Barkley, displaying none of the effects of the calf injury he suffered at Fulham a week ago, came on fired up and energised in the same way he had been in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in December. Where Osman's inclusion promised foot-on-the-ball composure and deliberation against a supposedly superior opposition, Barkley's raw and direct approach complimented an altogether more gung-ho mood in an Everton team that was content to cede the bulk of the possession to Arsenal, contain them, and then pick them off with precision distribution going forward.
Indeed, aside from one nervy moment when Olivier Giroud nudged Sagna's wicked cross past the far post, the Gunners' only attempts to force an early goal had been limited to shots from distance, one across the face of Howard's goal by Lukas Podolski and the other a drive from Mathieu Flamini's from a similar distance that was parried and then gathered by the American before Everton carved them open with barely a quarter of an hour on the clock.
Leighton Baines' pin-point pass dissected the defence and picked Romelu Lukaku out brilliantly but the Belgian's quick shot was foiled well by Wojciech Szczesny's out-stretched foot. The rebound fell invitingly for Steven Naismith, though, who steered it calmly inside the post eliciting bedlam in the stands as the faithful dared to dream of a famous victory.
In contrast to previous years where an early Everton goal against traditional top-four opposition would be followed by uncertainty and a measure of retreat, the Blues retained their forward momentum and went close, first when James McCarthy drilled the ball into the danger zone and it flicked kindly off Naismith's boot for Szczesny to save, and then when the Polish 'keeper made a smart low save to prevent Kevin Mirallas' shot from sneaking inside his near post.
The second breakthrough did come, though, 12 minutes before half time and it was a beautiful illustration of Martinez's tactical acumen. Having identified a weakness on the left side of Arsenal's defence, the Spaniard had deployed Lukaku on the right side of a fluid three-pronged attack that played perfectly to the Belgian striker's strength at bearing down on goal at speed with the ball at his feet.
A fortuitous bounce off Mikel Arteta in the centre circle fell nicely for Mirallas and he found Lukaku with a lovely pass to the right flank. His compatriot did the rest, driving at the heart of the Arsenal defence and gliding past two red shirts before whipping a left-foot shot past Szczesny before he even had time to properly react. 2-0 and Goodison was bouncing.
Arsenal needed to respond and they did escalate their game to engineer their best spell thus far in the closing 10 minutes of the half but Howard was equal to Podolski's fierce drive that he cannoned into the turf forcing the American into an acrobatic one-handed save to push the ball over the crossbar.
With a two-goal cushion, Everton were guilty somewhat of starting the second period with a little less composure and intensity with both Mirallas and the otherwise flawless John Stones playing themselves into trouble in dangerous areas. Mirallas' attempt to dribble away from his own byline ended with Howard having to scramble the ball away from Giroud's feet and when Stones was dispossessed by Santi Cazorla, Flamini could only end the move by sliding a shot well wide.
By contrast, in the 61st minute, when Sagna was caught dithering just inside Everton's half, Mirallas made the Frenchman pay for his sloppiness. The Belgian forward raced away into opposition territory and slipped the ball down the channel to meet Naismith's run. Szczesny did well to push the ball away before the Scot could take it around him but in the desperate footrace to the loose ball between Mirallas and Arteta, the latter could only prod the ball into his own net to make it a staggering 3-0 to the Blues.
As if on cue, the clouds parted to bathe the Grand Old Lady in sunshine, symbolic perhaps of the re-emergence of a club from a long winter frozen out of its rightful place among English football's elite.
Save for a great chance for Barkley who was set up in acres of space in the box by the ever-alert Lukaku that the 20 year-old could only drive straight at the goalkeeper and a rasping drive from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that thumped off Howard's bar, the game was effectively over as a contest. That left the home side to settle back into their familiar possession game, eliciting joyous "olés" from the crowd as they strung together a long sequence of passes to toy with their beaten and dejected opponents.
Afforded the luxury to showboat a little, Seamus Coleman brought out a couple of party tricks, first surging away from his own area with a 30-yard ball-juggling act and then embarrassing Cazorla with a mesmerising heel flick that left the Spaniard incredulous. And there was a last act of crowd-pleasing aggro between Barkley and Arteta in which the young midfielder reacted to an apparent elbow by the Arsenal man by shoving him to the floor. Yet more symbolism on a tremendous day for Everton Football Club – the Blues squared up toe-to-toe with an experienced and talented outfit and simply swatted them aside.
Steven Naismith would officially garner the man-of-the-match accolades but it was a day where such distinctions were rendered moot by a complete team performance from front to back. From Howard's heroics in goal and the central defensive rocks in front of him to Coleman's tricks and Baines' sublime passing; from the unceasing industry and covering by Barry and McCarthy to the invention and drive of Barkley and Mirallas; from Naismith's movement and composure in front of goal to the unbridled power and hunger of Lukaku in full flight... every player contributed to one of the finest games Goodison has witnessed in recent years.
Whether this further crystallises an emphatic shift in the balance of power between these two clubs in the context of this season's top four remains to be seen over the final month of the campaign. Arsene Wenger's side have the benefit of a soft run-in over their final five games but they have also shown that they can drop points against mediocre opposition as self doubt has crept in in recent weeks. Everton, meanwhile, have delivered an unmistakable message that they no longer fear any of the Premier League's moneyed big boys and they clearly have momentum and a growing self-belief that, were in not for their more challenging schedule, they would bet hot favourites to unseat Arsenal from a position in the Champions League spots they have almost taken for granted over 16 years of repeat qualification.
Roberto Martinez looked to be keeping some of his powder dry for the second half of this massive game against the Gunners, with the attacking prowess of Deulofeu, McGeady and Barkley all on the bench while Osman started with Naismith and Mirallas in a 4-2-3-1 line-up behind Romelu Lukaku.
Everton kicked off and played the ball around confidently, witth captain Leon Osman making a nice statement of intent with an adventurous lob off a throw-in that had Szczesny beaten but flashed inches past the far post. At the other end, Giroud tried a low shot that flew wide across Howard's goal.
A promising attack saw Baines play a great ball to Naismith who chose to cross behind Lukaku. The ball came out down the Arsenal right and a very rash tackle by Osman on Sagna that earned him a cut on the head, a yellow card, and then a substitution, as Barkley replaced him inside 10 mins.
Naismith went in late on Arteta but avoided a yellow card as the boos rang out for the former Everton player. Stones almost played in Giroud with a weak cross-pass that Howard had to kick away but it started a move that ended with a superb Baines pass playing in Lukaku, whose shot was direct at Szezny, and Naismith was there to slot home the rebound ad really define the Blues' intent for this vital game.
The goal was vitally important for giving Everton confidence,.. perhaps a little too much for the first corner, won by Baines, that Mirallas woefully over-hit. Everton should have done better on the next attack, two balls driven hard into the danger area, Naismith clipping it at Szczesny. A better move from Arsenal saw a great pass behind the Everton defence and a clear goal chance.
Barkley was getting more and more involved, and caused havoc when he got to the byeline to force the second Everton corner, from which Mirallas conjoured a low drive saved by Szczesny at the near post. At the other end, Arsenal looked dangerous each time they attacked, their first corner seeing a Stones miskick in a very dangerous are that was recovered well by his teammates.
From a throw-in, Everton worked the ball across field in determined fashion to Romelu Lukaku, who had one thing on his mind as he jinked past two or three defenders along the 18-yard line and lashed an unstoppable shot with the minimum of backlift, a very special moment for the big man and the massed Evertonians rocking the roof off Goodison Park.
Each Arsenal attack brought more fear and trepidation, only for the Everton defence to somehow deal with it, one shot form Podolski, driven into the ground and up with massive topspin carrying it toward the top corner of Howard's goal but the American tipped it behind with an excellent save. Flamani then got a booking for his foul on Naismith. Arsenal kept the tempo of the game really high, putting the Everton defence under some real pressure as they searched for a goal that would give them some hope for the second half but Everton simply denied them at every attempt.
The second half saw both sides trying to use their skills in possession to different ends, Arsenal trying to pass their way into the Everton area;Everton trying to retain possession but with limited attacking intent as they hoped to draw Arsenal out. At times it looked to be a very dangerous ploy, when Mirallas dribbled in toward Howard and almost gave away a goal... then Stones, hassled and caught, finally losing the ball. Everton needed to play their normal game, and finally got back into their attacking grove after a worrying period of indecision.
But Mirallas had more drive about him as he picked Vermaelen's pocket and drove into acres of space, playing the ball to Naismith who fired at Szczesny and the loose ball turned into a foot race between Arteta and Mirallas, one of whom clipped the ball into the Arsenal net, much to the relief of the Goodison crowd.
Everton then indulged the crowd in extended spells of Olé football, holding the ball well as they tried to draw Arsenal out and create more space for Lukaku, Naismith and Mirallas to exploit. Wenger made three substitutions in a forlorn attempt to get back in the game. The one time Arsenal did penetrate the Everton defence, Sanogo was flagged offside.
In the last 10 mins, McGeady replaced Naismith, given a fine hand by the Goodison faithful, as Arsenal looked increasingly pathetic, playing some shocking balls on the rare occasions Everton ceded them possession. At times during the second half, the Martinez philosophy of "expressing ourselves" had been epitomized by wonderful spells of champagne football, spoilt only by Oxlade Chamberlain smacking the ball agaunst the Everton crossbar.
Romelu Lukau went off to a tremendous round of applause, replaced by Gerard Deulofeu for the last few minutes, as Arsenal attacked more out of desperation, stones doing some tremendous defensive work.. . Arteta finally getting into it wiyth Barkley, accused of using an elbow, and the Everton crowd ecstatsic as the former Blue was told what for by Baines and was booked by Martin Atkinson.
A tremendous domineering performance by the Blues that totally destroyed Arsenal, their biggest win over the Gunners in 25 years, and fine revenge for that galling FA Cup Quarterfinal defeat.
If Roberto Martinez's first season in charge has been permeated by a feeling that his Everton team have actually under-achieved; that they haven't racked up some of the wins that their performances have deserved – be it because of a lack of firepower, a missing killer instinct or key injuries; that the chance of finishing fourth had slipped away over the course of four disappointing away games between 20th January and 22nd February; then this Sunday's massive game against Arsenal offers a second chance and opportunity. A big opportunity.
Victory might not deliver Champions League qualification for the first time in nine years but, being a sixth-successive Premier League win, it would further establish a crucial commodity that has helped propel the Blues back into contention for the top four: momentum. And with Arsenal having lost a good deal of theirs as they have faded from a title race they impressively lead for so long earlier in the campaign, momentum could prove key for Everton with just six matches remaining after this weekend.
More than further establishing the two team's respective momentum, victory would bring the Blues to within a point of the Gunners with a game in hand, increasing the pressure on Arsene Wenger's men to come through over a highly favourable run-in that pits them against teams almost entirely in the bottom half of the table – the one that isn't, Newcastle, may as well be – while Martinez's team face Manchester City, Manchester United and a potentially tricky trip to Southampton.
Even so, a win for Everton would put a top-four finish in their own hands – seven more consecutive victories to finish the campaign would be highly unlikely but Martinez's team will know that they would have to beat Crystal Palace in their game in hand then merely match Arsenal's results and they would secure that final Champions League qualification place... assuming, of course, the unthinkable doesn't happen and United win this year's trophy!
First things first, of course, and that means focusing on a fixture that Everton haven't won for seven years. Indeed, Arsenal are second only to Manchester United as the Blues' least favourite opponent, restricting to us just five wins and 27 points over the past two decades.
Martinez's cause is aided somewhat by the fact that Wenger comes with a side depleted of some key players like Mezut Ozil, Lorent Koscielny, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere. Aaron Ramsey, another recent injury absentee, is expected to be included in the squad but a lack of match sharpness make him an unlikely starter.
Arsenal have plenty of other weaponry in their, well, arsenal, with two potential defensive rocks in Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesaker, inventive midfield threats like Thomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla, and danger men up front like Olivier Geroud (a two-goal scorer in that cup tie) and Lukas Podolski
They have shown themselves to be fallible in recent weeks, though, losing at Stoke a month ago, getting thrashed by Chelsea and then dropping two points at home to Swansea prior to last weekend's hard-fought home draw with Manchester City. Notably for a Blues side that Evertonians will be hoping will be fired up for this one, the Gunners can be rattled and lose their stomach for the fight in the face of an opposition side bent on first dominating them and then putting goals past them. That hasn't been Everton's modus operandi often this season but signs of a killer instinct have emerged in their last two games where they comfortably beat Newcastle and Fulham away from home.
Martinez's starting line-up is going to be an intriguing one not easy to predict. He has opted for a rotation policy for his attacking midfielders lately in an effort to keep them fresh for just this kind of game but kept the same line-up at Craven Cottage last weekend as that which had won so impressively at St James' Park five days before. It was his three substitutes, however, only one of whom saw any action at Newcastle, who provided the catalyst for victory over Fulham and all three of Steven Naismith, Aiden McGeady and Kevin Mirallas made cases for their inclusion this weekend.
There is also a question mark over Ross Barkley who was withdrawn at half time last Sunday with a calf injury. His manager insists he should be fit to play and Martinez put him straight into the starting XI in the cup at the Emirates after seeing how well he played against Arsenal at the same venue in December so he may keep faith with him again.
It's possible that Gerard Deulofeu may drop to the bench and be used as a weapon in the second half given his preference for attack over tracking back and that would provide an opening for Mirallas or McGeady. Leon Osman could also be preferred for his discipline and experience.
At the back, Phil Jagielka is unlikely to play due to him being eased back from a hamstring injury and that will give John Stones another opportunity to enhance his burgeoning reputation as one of the most promising homegrown talents in the Premier League. The 19 year-old deputised for the captain in the cup at the Emirates last month in a defence than ended up shipping four goals so he will need to be more mindful of his positioning and the threat posed by Arsenal's pace and movement on the counter.
A precious win would provide an enormous injection of belief for Everton in their quest to crack that glass ceiling and finish in the top four. It is unquestionably going to take a big performance from the players, backed by equally committed support from the stands. Goodison needs to become a cauldron, a wall of noise. Three points won't decide anything immediately in the Champions League race but the Blues can prove this weekend that they are worthy of that lofty goal, that they belong among England's elite. Time to make a statement of intent.
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