The cold snap hit England this week, and it decimated the English football programme this weekend to such an extent that it is almost surprising that as many as six matches took place. The decision to cancel matches during the week was a prudent one on the part of most clubs. Only those with undersoil heating were likely to sidestep the freeze, and conditions elsewhere meant that travel has been at best chaotic for most and at worst downright dangerous over the last few days. On balance, it is probably for the best that supporters were not put to the considerable inconvenience (and potential risk) of travelling to matches which were never likely to take place in the first place.
Arsenal were one of those that survived, having gone to considerable effort to ensure that their match against Everton survived the weather. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that they went to the effort. They have, as quietly as possible in the screamadelic world of the Premier League, managed to haul themselves into genuine contention in the title race with a run that leaves them unbeaten in the league since their home defeat at the hands of Chelsea at the end of November. A win today will leave them a point behind Chelsea at the top of the table and above Manchester United. So, the undersoil heating was switched on and the staff were outside The Emirates Stadium this morning making sure that the risk of anybody slipping on the ice was kept to a minimum.
Everton, meanwhile, continue to take one step forward and one step back. In recent weeks, they have come from two goals behind to earn a draw against Tottenham Hotspur and came from behind three times to snatch a point against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The fact that they took just two points from these matches, however, tells its own story. They have also dropped points recently against Birmingham City and Sunderland and lost at Hull City at the end of November. A lack of consistency has been the bane of Everton’s season so far – manager David Moyes must be wondering what he has done to anger the gods this season.
The visitors may be in mid-table and with hopes of a place in Europe vanishing away on the horizon, but they will be watched very closely this afternoon. Many of the eyes will be coming from the United States of America, because they have signed the American football legend Landon Donovan on a three month loan from MLS club LA Galaxy. It’s an interesting signing that could turn out to be an inspiring one. Donovan seems to have been around forever, but is actually only twenty-seven years old. After failing to make a significant breakthrough in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen, he returned home in 2005 and a goal in every other match in his four years back in MLS seem to have vindicated the decision.
In addition to this, Donovan has been the definitive player of the last ten years of the US national team. He has made one hundred and twenty appearances for the national team, first coming to international attention at the 2002 World Cup. He scored against both Italy and Brazil at the Confederations Cup last summer and remains central to their plans for this summer. How he gets on in the Premier League may act as a gauge for American hopes of beating England at the World Cup in South Africa this summer. There is no guarantee that he will be a success in the Premier League, but there is no particular reason to not believe that he will be. The Emirates Stadium, one of the more palatial homes of English football, isn’t a bad place for him to begin his crash course in the Premier League.
As three o’clock ticks over, the snow is starting to fall in North London, and the empty seats on view are a testament to the difficulties that many will have faced in travelling today. Within minutes, Arsenal have a scare. Phil Neville’s long throw is only half cleared, and Steven Pienaar’s second ball into the penalty area leaves Louis Saha free, but Saha is offside and the linesman’s flag is quickly raised. Everton, though, look lively. Saha finds some space on the right hand side and shoots over when he probably should have at least hit the target. It takes twelve minutes for Donovan to impact. A deflected shot gives them a corner, which Donovan flights delightfully, sweeping away from goal for Leon Osman to jump and head the ball into the top corner.
Shortly afterwards, though, a slip. A heavy touch allows Arsenal a delicate lob into the penalty area, where William Gallas touches the ball past Tim Howard, only for Leighton Baines to acrobatically clear the ball. It is only a temporary respite for Everton. After twenty-seven minutes, they fail to successfully clear a cross from the right and Denilson’s relatively weak shot takes a massive deflection off Osman and rolls agonisingly past the wrong-footed Howard. The goal is credited to Denilson, but in days gone by Leon Osman might have found himself on the scoresheet at either end of the pitch within the opening thirty minutes of the match. It is Everton, however, that finish the half as the stronger of the two sides. A deep, swirling cross finds Tim Cahill at the far post, but Cahill is overstretched and his header is weak and easily cleared.
The weather worsens during half-time, and by the start of the second half the snow flurries are in danger of turning into a blizzard. None of this, however, seems to concern Donovan, who starts the second half with a strong run, cutting inside and playing a – possibly not entirely intentional – one-two with Cahill before momentarily getting caught in two minds and putting a ball across the Arsenal six yard box that is almost exactly half-way between a shot towards the far post and a cross in the direction of the unmarked Steven Pienaar. The ball floats harmlessly away for a goal kick. The match continues to swing from end to end. Aaron Ramsey nudges the ball past Howard, only for the goalkeeper to recover and block his attempted cross. Minutes later, Arsenal get a let off when Saha’s shot is deflected off Gallas’ leg, but this time the ball curls narrowly wide of Manuel Almunia’s right hand post.
As the sun sets, the temperature drops and the snow starts to settle. Flashing crosses from either side of the pitch find first Tomas Rosicky and then Eduardo just inches from getting a touch to divert the ball in. Then Denilson’s shot is smartly tipped over by Howard. Arsenal are in charge now, and the crowd, for the first time, is starting to find its voice. Arsenal are pouring players forward, and Donovan is sacrificed midway through the half to a more defensive position as David Moyes seeks to preserve the point that his team have worked for. With nine minutes to play, however, the visitors snatch a sucker punch. Arsenal have committed everybody forward, but Sagna loses possession on the possession of the Everton penalty area. The ball is played forward to Cahill, whose ball forward finds Stephen Pienaar onside, on the halfway line and with the Arsenal half of the pitch to himself. He runs through, lobs the outcoming Almunia and Everton have the lead.
Arsenal were already possibly committing too many players forward. Now they are forced to try and camp out in the Everton half. This, however, is inherently risky. Denilson goes down unchallenged in the centre circle he is withdrawn, but later reports confirm that it is nothing serious) and James Vaughan runs through on goal, but this time Almunia blocks a poor finish. Minutes later, Arsenal only half clear a corner and Pienaar shoots over. They are missed chances that Everton will come to regret at leisure. Three minutes into stoppage time, a languid run from Abou Diaby goes largely unchallenged. He nudges the ball into the path of Rosicky and, for the second time this aftenoon, fortune rides with the home side as his shot is deflected off the foot of Lucas Neill, wrong-footing Howard and into the goal.
“Lucky Arsenal”? Perhaps, but a point was a reasonable reflection of a match which swung entertainingly from end to end and which either side could have won. Both managers, however, will come away from it with the nagging suspicion that this was a missed opportunity. The Premier League continues its uncharacteristic trend for upsetting applecarts into the early evening when Manchester United can only snatch a point themselves from a trip to Birmingham City. They stay a point ahead of Arsenal, whose mixed feelings should be based on several factors. Injury times are always welcome, but a home point against a mid-table side will, at the same time, feel more like two points dropped rather than one point gained. Everton, on the other hand, may have been more than happy with a point from a trip to Arsenal, but this feeling may well be diluted by having taken the lead with nine minutes left to play and having had a further clear chances to put the game completely beyond Arsenal.
Finally, a quick word about Landon Donovan. This was a very encouraging debut for Everton’s most recent signing. He seemed to give Everton much better balance in attack, both in the options that he gives the players around him and what he can offer to the players around him, and his confidence in running at the Arsenal defence betrayed a player that has settled into his new club quickly – an important trait for someone signed during the January transfer window. There was plenty to suggest that Donovan could turn out to be a significant asset for a club that will be glancing at the FA Cup as a consolation from a season that has disappointed in the league when some expected them to launch a challenge for a place in next season’s Champions League. It won’t the last time that you will hear this on this site before the summer – anybody that expects England to breeze past the USA in South Africa may well be in for a rude awakening.