EVERTON battled to a 1-1 draw at Arsenal yesterday afternoon as the Gunners moved five points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
The Toffees dominated for large spells, but fell behind to a Mesut Ozil goal with ten minutes remaining. However, Roberto Martinez’s well-drilled side produced an instant response as substitute Gerard Deulofeu, the on-loan Barcelona teenager, equalised.
Arsenal almost snatched a dramatic victory in stoppage time when Olivier Giroud’s 25-yard effort struck the woodwork, but Everton deserved to take something back to Merseyside.
The result left Everton manager Martinez proud of his side’s display at the Emirates. “The performance – I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
“The only bit of criticism is you need to take your chances. In the final third we were not ruthless enough, but I am really, really pleased. The character is really strong. We conceded really late from an unlikely source, but we didn’t accept defeat.”
He added: “The draw was a fair result. For long spells we frustrated Arsenal and looked like the home team. The players deserve huge credit.”
Following other results on Saturday, when Chelsea lost and Manchester City drew, Arsenal were looking to put clear daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
France forward Giroud was back in the starting XI having been rested for the midweek win over Hull, but England forward Theo Walcott was again a substitute in a fixture designated to the Arsenal Foundation Charity.
Unchanged Everton made a positive start, with a counter-attack in which Kevin Mirallas got away down the right and sent a low ball straight through the Arsenal six-yard box.
The Toffees – who were on a seven-match unbeaten Premier League run – continued to dominate possession, with Costa Rica full-back Bryan Oviedo a constant danger on the overlap down the right. But after such an uncharacteristically slow start, Arsenal began to find some possession in midfield.
A sweeping counter by the hosts, started by Ozil deep on the left, freed Santi Cazorla on the overlap down the right, and his low centre flew across the face of goal, with only a touch needed by the onrushing Kieran Gibbs to put the ball into the net.
It proved only a temporary rally as Everton were soon back on top, with England World Cup hopeful Ross Barkley most impressive as he drove at the Arsenal defence.
Finally, the home side managed to fashion an opening as Giroud was played through on goal in the 43rd minute, but Tim Howard was out quickly to block from the France forward.
The American had to be alert again in first-half stoppage time when Aaron Ramsey broke through the middle of a crowded penalty area.
There was at least more purpose to Arsenal at the start of the second half, as Gibbs crashed a 20-yard effort wide following a corner.
Ozil’s ball in from the right was knocked back by Jack Wilshere, but Cazorla could not get any power on his header, which was straight at goalkeeper Howard.
Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny had to be alert when Everton broke quickly in the 54th minute, with Barkley playing in Steven Pienaar, whose 20-yard drive was turned away.
The Gunners were soon back on the offensive, with a cross from Gibbs met by Ramsey at the far post, and his angled half-volley was blocked by Howard.
James McCarthy was shown a yellow card for leading with a high boot into a challenge with Ramsey – the Everton midfielder’s fifth of the season, which will result in a suspension.
Szczesny saved from Barkley’s 18-yard strike before Arsenal made a triple substitution with 23 minutes left as Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey were replaced by Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.
Flamini dragged his angled shot wide of the far post after Walcott’s determined run into the right side of the Everton penalty area.
Howard was booked for time wasting with 13 minutes remaining and on the break a Mirallas shot was deflected behind. Arsenal took the lead with ten minutes left. Rosicky’s sweeping cross out to the right was met by Walcott, who headed it straight back through the Everton six-yard box.
Giroud completely missed his kick, but Ozil was on hand to crash the ball into the roof of the net.
The lead, though, lasted only four minutes as Deulofeu smashed in the equaliser from the right side of the box less than five minutes after coming on as a substitute, after Arsenal had switched off at the back.
Giroud, though, almost snatched victory in stoppage time when his stunning 25-yard drive struck the woodwork, but Everton deserved to share the points.
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger was happy to have five points between his side and closest challengers Liverpool and Chelsea.
He said: “Not bad to take – ideally wanted seven, but at least we’ve got five.
“It gives a little bit of a cushion to play in a serene way against other teams.
Of the match the Frenchman said: “It was a very tense game. I thought it was very tight. They remained always dangerous on counter attacks, but it’s a point.”
Everton sensation Barkley was one of the most impressive players on the pitch and his captain Phil Jagielka credited him and his fellow youngsters with “keeping him young” after the 1-1 draw.
When quizzed about their presence in the team, Jagielka replied: “Fantastic – on the training ground they keep us young. We’ve got some fantastic young lads.”
And on Barkley specifically, he said: “It’s exciting times.
“He has just got to keep on doing things he does well and maybe work on things he does not do so well.” Of the game, the England defender admitted he had feared the worst when Giroud’s injury-time shot rattled the bar.
“Yeah, massively,” he said, “but I think we were good value for the draw.
“They had some fantastic play on the counter-attack.
“It was two good footballing teams and hard to get the ball back from each other.”
Barkley added: “It was a fair result in the end. The season is going well for me; the season so far is good.”
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Ramsey (Flamini 68), Arteta, Wilshere (Rosicky 68), Ozil, Cazorla (Walcott 68), Giroud.
Everton: Howard, Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Oviedo, McCarthy, Barry, Mirallas (Deulofeu), Barkley (Naismith 90), Pienaar (Osman 71), Lukaku