Everton set to fall short again
Arsenal's charge has stalled. Everton's outside chance dwindles, even in the light of a result that might have been the best they had hoped for. There may be more far-reaching effects. Spurs might now not be so shaky. Chelsea might not feel quite so tired. Neither Arsenal nor Everton took the chance to take themselves to the next level.
If David Moyes should leave Everton this summer, he will do so as one of the club's finest managers. He may not have won the silverware that Harry Catterick, Howard Kendall and even Joe Royle once celebrated but he has sailed a ship through choppy financial conditions to its establishment as a frequent best of the rest. In the time since Everton won the FA Cup in 1995, only Portsmouth have lifted that trophy from outside the former 'big four' and the newly-enriched Manchester City. Were Arsene Wenger managing a club with the 11th biggest wage bill in the Premier League, he might be hailing sixth place as a trophy in itself.
Yet Moyes has not been without lost opportunities. There have been several watershed matches in his 11-year tenure that might have taken Everton in the realms of the established elite. The most striking example would be the 2009 FA Cup final loss to Chelsea but perhaps more important was the defeat in a Champions League play-off to Villarreal in the summer of 2005. Everton have fallen short on too many occasions for the liking of some of their supporters; a recent poor record against Liverpool is hardly to their liking but neither is their execrable record against Arsenal, who have taken Everton for the most points of any club in the 21 seasons of the Premier League. Despite getting just deserts from this game, a Moyes-led team has still never won at either Highbury or the Emirates.
"I don't think we're out of place where we are," Moyes admitted after a draw where his team gave everything but fell short of the quality to win. "It's hard for us."
The latest watershed had been and gone. A late-season surge will not be enough. This was a squandered chance to break London's pretensions of following Manchester's giants into the Champions League though even if they do not make it, Everton might have a say yet; their final game of the season is Rafa Benitez's no-doubt fond farewell from Stamford Bridge.
Everton played throughout with battling drive. Arsenal were not allowed to retain the momentum from their late victory against Norwich that sprang from a fortunate piece of x-ray vision from a linesman for their equalising penalty. Teenager Ross Barkley was an unlikely hatchet man in two reductive early tackles on Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. It was indicative of a collective strong-arm approach. Wilshere was risked despite his manager admitting he is still short of fitness. For the 69 minutes he lasted, he still provided his team's more creative moments but his willingness to put his body repeatedly on the line might lead to further absences.
Without Leon Osman, Marouane Fellaini played Everton anchor. It meant that his troublesome lopes into dangerous positions were limited. Osman's verve was certainly missed too. Steven Pienaar, like Fellaini back from suspension, sat deep as well and rarely featured, only holding his left-side position while Kevin Mirallas, a stranger to tracking back according to his manager, was allowed the freedom to wander in support of lonesome Victor Anichebe.
The Nigerian was granted his team's best chance of the first half but slipped with Wojciech Szczesny to beat. He might also have nodded in a second-half free-kick from the ever-reliable source of Leighton Baines. A late shot when Seamus Coleman was making a clear overlap confirmed a frustrating night for Anichebe.
Yet Olivier Giroud proved the night's prime waster of chances, badly sliding a fine Aaron Ramsey cross wide of Tim Howard's goal just before the break. Wenger's shopping list needs a better finisher than that. Moyes, or his potential successor, must be thinking the same too.
If Arsenal benefitted on Saturday from officialdom, their fans often howled in rage at referee Neil Swarbrick. Darron Gibson was booked for a crude hack on Theo Walcott and then escaped a second yellow for a clear block on the same player. Wenger thought he should have been dismissed.
"When we were rough and tackling?" smiled Moyes. "That's allowed up north you know," he swiped at the effete London press pack.
Everton's powerplay meant the Emirates stopped being its usually quiet self; outrage is always fuel for volume in a football stadium. Life was made extremely difficult for Arsenal. Shots had to be snatched at, headers were never free. The Gunners have rarely played the beautiful football their fans celebrate this season and Everton were not going to let them do it either.
"It's part of the game and we have to deal with that," Wenger said. "It's for the referee to make the right decision. I don't blame Everton."
"We're not here to let Arsenal pass 600 passes around," confirmed Moyes.
Barkley came closest of all, a shimmy and feint buying him the space to fizz in a shot that had Wojciech Sczczesny beaten. Had Barkley's shot been inches to its left, it would have borne definite resemblance to the strike with which Wayne Rooney announced himself against the same opponents in the 2002-03 season. "He's got a goal in him," said Moyes.
As both pushed for the single goal that would win it, a classic Arsenal breakaway was only averted when Seamus Coleman and Sylvain Distin's double-team got in the way of Giroud sliding in an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross. The same supply line provided the hapless Frenchman to miss once more for bad luck; he blazed over having made space for the chance to beat Howard. "We should have won the game," lamented Wenger.
Everton's satisfaction with a draw and the post-match demeanour of their manager suggested limited horizons. Arsenal's fate has slipped from their own hands.