Perhaps it was fitting in a week which exposed the greed of six English clubs that one of them would fall to another calamitous misjudgement, against one of the teams who might be most aggrieved by the European Super League cabal.
A Bernd Leno own goal gave Everton the win over Arsenal, an on-field retaliation after off-field swings from the Toffees. One pronounced on a number of fronts, such as being their first victory away to Arsenal since January 1996, thus their first-ever win at the Emirates Stadium making this the first time Everton have done the double over their opponents (having won 2-1 at Goodison Park in December) since the 1985/86 season.
Leno’s moment of slapstick misfortune was the kind that could only happen to a side in the midst of the kind of days Arsenal have endured since pulling out of the European Super League on Tuesday night. A tame pull-back from Richarlison was trickling towards him on 76 minutes. Seemingly in position to collect cleanly, the ball somehow passed through his hands and off the inside of his right heel, nutmegging himself and, ultimately, settling the match. The distance between the two sides is now six points even if it is just one place.
This was not a classic, in keeping with the matches that have played out since news of the breakaway plans came to light. You could argue the degree of shame felt by Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have impinged on their usual manner. But all were able to emerge from their fixtures relatively unscathed. For Arsenal, here was a 13th defeat overall and seventh at home – the most in familiar surroundings since 1992/93.
A largely uneventful affair was scored by a faint hum of activity elsewhere. The kind that piqued interest, making you wonder if, perhaps, the floodlit carpet of the Emirates Stadium was not where the real action was to be found. Certainly not the action that mattered.
Arsenal fans had arrived at the ground in their thousands in the hours before kick-off to protest the club’s shady dealings as one of the rebels angling for the European Super League. Chants and flare smoke filled the air, before both were drowned out by a the regular boisterous calling for the end of the Kroenke’s reign in north London. As referee John Moss blew his whistle for the start, songs filtered through into the arena like the noise from a much better party next door.
Even so, amid quiet nature of the opening 45 minutes was the vague promise of raucousness because of the prevailing attitudes harboured by this week’s development. Everton, perennially trying to command a regular seat at English football’s top table, had the most to lose from the ESL. Similarly, Arsenal the most to lose. Those situations were best reflected in the fact that one team was a win away from moving within three points of the top four – and it wasn’t a would-be Super League club.
That tension manifested itself with Everton having the best of a disjointed first-half. Neither team used the ball effectively, though the visitors seemed to have the clearer idea of what to do with it. Quick feet from Richarlison drew a save out of Bernd Leno just before the half hour for the game’s first shot on target. Gylfi Sigurdsson then struck the top of the bar with a free-kick from 25 yards 10 minutes later.
A shot in the arm came four minutes into the second period when a cut-back in the box from Dani Ceballos drew a mistimed kick out from Richarlison. Ceballos went down convincingly enough for Moss to point to the spot, despite the Brazilian’s protestations. And though the penalty was retracted when VAR found Nicolas Pepe a fraction off side during the build-up. But replays of the “foul” showed minimal, perhaps even non-existent contact. The retraction and revelation drew ire from both sides.
Suddenly the shouting on the pitch from the sidelines drowned out the outside noise. Every pass was that little bit more urgent, each tackle that little bit snappier. And for a moment, it looked to have benefitted Arsenal, knocking them out of auto-pilot and promoting them to assume control. Ceballos’s 20-yard effort towards the top corner which was clawed out by Jordan Pickford was a nod to a more pro-active approach.
But with 14 minutes of regular time to play, a catalogue of errors gave Everton the lead. A basic long ball towards Richarlison saw him first roll Xhaka and then, having taken the ball on, skip past his tackle with ease. With more red shirts than blue in the box, his cross along the ground was in hope more than expectation. Leno’s split-second loss of concentration to miss the ball completely with his hands and then not enough with his planted feet was as comical as it was terminal.
Gabriel Martinelli almost found the far corner in added time with a shot from just outside the six-yard box, only for Pickford to make a fine save. Leno then spent the final minutes in the Everton box trying to make up for his mistake. But a foul as he rose for a header ended a sustained period of pressure and allowed Everton to walk away with the three points.
At the full-time whistle, the bad blood boiled over, with Fabian Delph and Rob Holding needing to be kept apart by their teammates. Once that hat dissipated, Everton’s players and staff screamed joy into the night sky. A pointed celebration of a win that was not just hard-fought but a statement of the arrogance they saw unfold earlier this week. One that started with their board lamenting the tarnishing of reputation and ends with them having bolstered their own.
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