London – Arsenal moved to the top of the Premier League for the first time since February 2014 after first half goals from Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny secured a 2-1 victory over Everton on Saturday.
Arsene Wenger’s side climbed one point above Manchester City, 24 hours before the previous leaders face neighbours United in the Manchester derby.
And while Everton threatened to deny Arsenal top spot when Ross Barkley struck just before the interval, Wenger’s side comfortably claimed a fourth successive win.
A frustrating afternoon for Everton at Emirates Stadium was complete when Gareth Barry was sent off in the closing moments after collecting a second yellow card.
The result extended Everton’s 19-year wait for a victory at Arsenal, while for Wenger’s men, the result was further confirmation that their campaign is at last gathering pace.
A crucial Champions League success against Bayern Munich on Tuesday undeniably provided a major lift after a season until recently marked by Arsenal’s familiar inconsistencies.
Wenger had already come in for heavy criticism, particularly after the home defeats to West Ham and Olympiakos, but the manner of the midweek win against the German champions demonstrated the strengths of his squad.
And Wenger was keen to point out in the build-up to this game that his side are now more mature and less fragile than the team of two years ago that failed to sustain their title challenge.
Like Wenger, Everton boss Roberto Martinez also focused on his side’s mentality before kick-off, warning his players they would have to adjust their mindset if they were to bring an end to their dismal away record at Arsenal and other top clubs.
Old Trafford and Anfield have proven to be equally unhappy venues for the Merseysiders although their record this season – Martinez’s side were unbeaten on the road coming into the game – suggested they had a chance of turning things around.
The visitors managed to contain Wenger’s team during the opening half hour, although there were signs of the weakness that would cost them when Giroud and Gabriel Paulista both easily won headers from Santi Cazorla corners.
Arsenal eventually exploited their aerial advantage to take control of the game with two goals in two minutes.
First, Mesut Ozil hoisted a beautifully flighted cross towards Giroud in the 36th minute, allowing the striker — who had drifted away from Phil Jagielka- to flick a backward header over the stranded Tim Howard.
The Everton keeper had been caught in two minds, but Howard had little chance moments later when Cazorla delivered a superb free-kick towards the edge of six-yard box.
Jagielka was again caught napping as Koscielny was able to reach the ball first and the centre-back needed only to make slight contact to divert the ball past Howard.
A previously tight game was now tilted emphatically in Arsenal’s favour, but Everton brought themselves back into it two minutes before the break through the excellent Barkley and a huge slice of luck.
The England international was sent clear by a sweeping pass from Gerard Deulofeu and his left-foot shot caught Petr Cech out after taking a heavy deflection off Gabriel.
The goal provided Everton with the perfect boost before the interval, but rather than lifting the visitors, it appeared to inspire Arsenal to step up their efforts and ensure they did not squander the points.
Arsenal dominated from the opening moments of the second period, yet they struggled to find the third goal that would provide them with breathing space.
Howard reacted well to smother an opportunity for Alexis Sanchez and then saved well from Giroud’s acrobatic volley before the France striker hit the bar.
A Romelu Lukaku header struck the woodwork to hand Arsenal a late scare but Wenger’s side stood firm.