Fighting spirit in evidence at Emirates
After the despair, and the doubt, came the delight. Infuriated by referee Lee Mason's decision to allow Louis Saha to score from a blatantly offside position following a touch from Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal appeared set for a damaging defeat in what became a poisonous atmosphere at home to Everton. However, as they dug deep into their reserves of character, making few friends in the process, it was Koscielny himself who secured a 2-1 win that may well have kept his side's title aspirations alive.
It was a rancorous game at times, witnessing hefty challenges, abuse thrown at referee Mason and a fearsome display from both sides. The theme continued post-match as well, when David Moyes accused Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas of making inappropriate comments to the match officials in the tunnel at half-time. The Everton boss, disappointed by a challenge from Fabregas on Mikel Arteta, said: "Fabregas' comments to the officials coming down the tunnel warranted a sending off at half-time. Comments deserving of a sending off, 100%. If he said it on the pitch he would have been off like that."
Arsenal's obvious anger stemmed from a moment of high controversy after 24 minutes. The law, wrote Charles Dickens, is an ass, and as he was no stranger to dramatic tales set in London, the novelist could have spun a few lines out of the offside decision that soured the night. There was no doubt that Saha was offside when Seamus Coleman attempted to dink a pass into his path, but with the ball flying to the right of the striker, Koscielny intervened when attempting to clear and only succeeded in playing his countryman in. Saha gratefully finished but debate lingered as Mason consulted his assistant long after the goal had been given. The grey area comprised the interpretation of whether Saha was only active in the second phase, and, indeed, just what the definitions of 'active' and 'second phase' precisely are.
Both managers agreed the goal should not have stood. "It was offside," Wenger said. "If someone can demonstrate mathematically to me it was not, I am ready to accept it." Moyes said it was the "wrong decision", in a rare conciliatory moment after a bad-tempered affair. Certainly, the goal generated an atmosphere of crackling antipathy, every debateable decision from Mason drawing anguished cries from the aggrieved and embittered home support, every favourable decision sparking ironic cheers.
Stung by injustice, Arsenal tried to muster a response. As the second half began, they laid siege to the Everton goal, but still the venom was flying. International colleagues Robin van Persie and Johnny Heitinga even became embroiled in an unseemly spat. Arsenal's Dutchman was clearly riled, and later earned a booking himself when, unimpressed with Arteta's reaction to a challenge, yanked the Spaniard to his feet in a fit of anger.
In seasons past, Van Persie may well have lost his head entirely and been dismissed, but instead Arsenal internalised their anger and produced a fine comeback that keeps them five points behind Manchester United. The spark came from a somewhat unlikely source.
Andrei Arshavin, a ghost of deadline days past after his arrival amid a snowstorm in February 2009, drew them level. He is the man who broke all of Wenger's transfer commandments. An experienced player, purchased at a premium in January, Arshavin memorably burst onto the scene with that four-goal haul against Merseyside opposition, but he has since been afflicted by the law of diminishing returns, each campaign drawing unfavourable comparisons with the one that preceded it. While Wenger has repeatedly pointed out that Arshavin's numerical contribution in terms of goals, assists and chances created is enviable, it is in the aesthetic, and his poor body language, that fault can be found. But here, there was nothing but acclaim for the Russian.
If he was clearly onside when darting into the box to receive Fabregas' lovely lofted pass, there was a certain irony in the fact that Arshavin executed his volley to beat Howard only after Jack Rodwell had inadvertently turned the ball into his path. Koscielny could have been forgiven a wry smile.
Inspired and enthused, Arsenal almost took the lead soon after when, for once, substitute Nicklas Bendtner's ability matched his ego and he pulled off a fine overhead kick that forced Howard into a save. Van Persie was the next to send the Everton goalkeeper scrambling as Howard clawed away a free-kick to concede a corner. It would prove crucial, as Koscielny rose unmarked to head in from the Dutchman's subsequent delivery.
It was a moment of redemption for the defender, and the ecstatic celebrations of his team-mates were evidence of an outpouring of relief. By the end, the tide had turned. Mason even invoked fury from the Everton ranks when penalising Marouane Fellaini for a foul on Bacary Sagna. Arsenal, for once, had no complaints.
Their character had taken them over the line and, this, more than anything, occupied Wenger's thoughts. "This is maybe the aspect of the team that has been questioned the most and it is where recently we have been the most convincing," he said. Moyes, though, would no doubt argue Arsenal's fighting spirit was embodied too enthusiastically by their captain.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Andrei Arshavin. He only played for 30 minutes, but Arshavin was the man who elevated Arsenal out of a dogfight and into a winning position. His intent was clear immediately following his arrival, and his finish for the equaliser was unerring as he set his side on course for victory.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Though they were lacking their usual flair, Arsenal exhibited a side of their game that has been all too frequently in evidence in recent years. Injuries may come back to haunt them though as both Alex Song and Theo Walcott suffered knocks, while Wenger also confirmed Samir Nasri will be sidelined for 21 days.
EVERTON VERDICT: They fought for every inch and in Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini had two excellent players in midfield. However, marking from a set piece let them down and denied them a deserved point.
TRANSFER WINDOW MADNESS: When told that his side cost £10 million less than the £50 million Liverpool paid to sign Fernando Torres, Wenger replied: "That's why I sat in my armchair last night and watched that at a distance. It looks that Chelsea are back on the market." When asked for his own perspective on the huge amounts spent in January, Moyes, a man restricted by prohibitive financial constraints, offered a curt: "You're asking the wrong man."