Everton take huge leap towards UCL qualification, smash past Gunners
Everton took a giant step towards the Champions League Sunday afternoon, downing a hapless Arsenal side 3-0 in a glittering performance. Spurred by Romelu Lukaku and a tactical masterstroke from manager Roberto Martinez, Everton simply took the Gunners apart.
With the win, Everton are now a single point off Arsenal’s stern for fourth place and hold a game in hand to boot. They control their destiny and after the game, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger conceded his side may be out of the running for Europe.
"Everton were better, sharper and deserved to win,” said Wenger. “The only time we looked like coming back into the game was in the second half, then we gave an easy goal away. Then that was it. It will be difficult to finish in top four but first we have to focus on the quality of our performances. I wouldn’t question the spirit of this team but we have lost something on the confidence front.”
Looking slow and jaded, the Gunners were comprehensively outclassed by a side that had not beat them in the league since 2007 – and against whom they have the best head-to-head record against of all clubs, all time. It was but the latest humiliation for this Arsenal side that, to be perfectly frank, cannot win big matches. Yes, Arsenal have been ravaged by injuries to key players, but they also have shown little ability to bounce back after failures. Instead, they keep repeating the same mistakes. It just might cost them Champions League football next season.
Contrast that with an ebullient Everton. For them, the sky seems the limit.
“It was one of the signature performances since I have been here at the club,” said American keeper Tim Howard after the match. “The fans have waited all season for a blockbuster performance and this was the one. We would like to believe we can finish in the top four and we have got to believe that we can.”
Tactically, Arsenal were outclassed from the whistle. Identifying Nacho Monreal as major point of weakness after Kieran Gibbs was not able to start, Martinez promptly moved Lukaku over to the right side. The result? It took but 15 minutes for Everton to score, with Leighton Baines the architect. Seeing Lukaku isolated against Monreal, he delivered a skittering ball on the rain-slicked surface that gave the big striker a one-on-one opportunity against Wojciech Szczesny. Startled, the keeper made a fine reaction stop, but the rebound fell right to the lurking Steven Naismith and he couldn’t miss from six yards — and he didn’t.
Lukaku would double their advantage twenty minutes later, the beneficiary of yet another Arsenal giveaway. Coughing the ball up at midfield, Arsenal saw Kevin Mirallas split the defense with a telling ball out wide right. Lukaku again left Monreal for dead, driving at Szczesny’s net and slamming the ball home with his left foot. It was a super goal, but a tainted one – Naismith was clearly offside and interfering with the play as he screened the keeper when the shot came in.
Yet these were hardly isolated chances: Szczesny was peppered throughout the match. Blameless on the goals, he was the victim of Arsenal’s now-typical lethargy – or is that simply a lack of pace? – which left massive gaps Everton were only too happy to exploit. Arsenal couldn’t break that pressure: they had but two real chances. One came when Lukas Podolski forced Tim Howard to palm the ball over; another followed late when sub Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put the ball onto Howard’s crossbar. Inbetween, there was nothing.
Even when Arsenal figured out what Everton was doing – using Naismith as a deep-lying forward and Mirallas and Lukaku running in from wide positions with their full-backs in support – they could do nothing about it.
Everton would ice the match just after the hour mark when Mirallas victimized Sagna to set off on a loping run that would end with him tapping the ball home. Feeding Naismith to his left, he was on track to tap home the rebound when Szczesny saved the shot, with Mikel Arteta apparently providing the final touch. The goal summed up just about everything that was wrong with Arsenal on the day: a soft giveaway compounded by dreadful defending.
“It is a great win and a psychological boost,” said Martinez after the match. “But the nature of this league is to be ready from game to game. Today is a good memory for Everton and we’re very proud of that performance.”
Arsenal now face a critical FA Cup semifinal next Saturday against Wigan, a team which has already upset three Premiership sides: Palace, Cardiff and mighty Manchester City. After that, they allegedly have the easier run-in compared to an Everton side that must face both Manchester teams. But Everton have now won six league games in a row, collecting a full 18 points. Arsenal have taken just five in the same period, and have sunk from atop the table into deep uncertainty..
Adding to Arsenal’s woes, Flamini collected another card today meaning he is now suspended for Arsenal’s next two games, a potentially massive blow. Flamini was poor today but he has been vital as cover for an Arsenal defense that has been exposed repeatedly over the last two months. And, Arteta may feel the wrath of the FA after he was seen elbowing Barkley late, something ref Martin Atkinson missed.
Everton, on the other hand, will feel they can charge into Europe’s elite. When he was introduced as Everton’s new manager, it was let slip that Martinez had promised he would give the club Champions League football. That remark raised eyebrows at the time. Now, it seems that Martinez was merely stating a fact.