By Richard Clarke
Ten-man Arsenal scrambled their way to a 2-1 victory over Everton at Highbury as Premiership football came back with a bang on Saturday.
There was little suggestion of the drama ahead in the opening stages. But that quiet start was shattered in the 25th minute when last man Sol Campbell was sent off for bringing down Thomas Gravesen on the edge of the area.
As so often happens, the red card only sparked the recipients into life and 10 minutes later Thierry Henry scored from the penalty spot after Alan Stubbs had handled.
Despite their depleted numbers, Arsenal continued to attack and doubled their lead just before the hour when Robert Pires prodded home following a fine double save from ex-Arsenal keeper Richard Wright.
They continued to push forward and came close to adding a third when Freddie Ljungberg hit the bar with a free-kick.
But, just as Arsenal seemed set to cruise home, Tomasz Radzinski thumped home a lifeline for Everton with six minutes left.
The visitors' chances were hampered three minutes later when substitute Li Tie received his second yellow card. It allowed Arsenal to hold on by their fingertips.
Phew! If this in an indication what we can expect this season then hold onto your hats - we are going on a rollercoaster ride.
Ars?ne Wenger raised eyebrows with his first selection of the Premiership season. Kolo Toure retained his new position as a centre back at the expense of Martin Keown, who started on the bench. Sylvain Wiltord was pushed up front alongside Henry with strikers Dennis Bergkamp and Francis Jeffers on the bench. Wiltord came to Highbury in September 2000 as a forward but spent much of last season on the right side of midfield.
Of course there was a significant - but entire expected - change in goal. Jens Lehmann was Arsenal's No 1 after David Seaman's illustrious 13 years at Highbury ended during the summer.
Everton had injury problems up front so manager David Moyes handed Nick Chadwick only his third start. Ominously, Wayne Rooney was fit enough to be on the bench. Remember he scored in both games against Arsenal last season.
Despite the heatwave of recent weeks, Highbury was overcast at kick-off. But the turf was lush, hopes were high and the crowd expectant - what more could you want for the first game of the season?
Chadwick might have put the visitors ahead after seven minutes. He arrived on time to forcefully poke Radzinski's cross goalwards from seven yards out. Lehmann instinctively stuck out a leg to block. A huge let-off.
It was not the most fluent start by Wenger's men but, as Arsenal found out last season, Everton are a highly competitive side who missed European qualification by a point.
Henry fired a couple of free-kicks narrowly over the bar as Arsenal began to find their range.
Then Campbell saw red in the 25th minute. Gravesen weaved past a couple of challenges and tumbled under the England defender's challenge in the D just outside the area. Referee Mark Halsey must have deemed Campbell the last defender and dismissed him. The England defender had been sent off on his last appearance at Highbury - the 2-2 draw with Manchester United on April 16. Ironically, Halsey was the referee that night as well.
Fortunately the wall rebuffed Stubbs' blast from the subsequent free-kick.
Wenger had little choice but to put on Keown. Wiltord was unlucky player to make way. The red card seemed to spark Arsenal's attacking instincts and, in the 35th minute, they scored when Stubbs flicked out an arm as Henry attempted to clip the ball past him on the edge of the area. Referee Halsey pointed to the spot and Henry tucked away the penalty with his usual aplomb.
Suddenly Arsenal were awake and Robert Pires ended a flowing move by nudging a header narrowly wide of the far post.
An unmarked Gilberto should have doubled Arsenal's advantage in first half injury time but he stumbled over his shot just 10 yards from goal.
Arsenal continued to attack after the restart with Patrick Vieira flashing a header wide from Henry's corner.
But the home side were warned against complacency when Gravesen robbed Cole as the full back attempted to round him on the halfway line. The Dane fed Radzinski who drilled a dangerous shot across the face of goal. Straight after that, Moyes decided to introduce Rooney.
However Arsenal responded by doubling their advantage seconds later. Henry's long-range shot was palmed away by Wright. Vieira pounced on the loose ball and forced another point-blank save from the ex-Arsenal stopper but Pires was on hand to stab home from close range.
Still Arsenal belied their numerical disadvantage. Wright had to be at his best to block Vieira's close-range stab after a perfectly-flighted free-kick to the far post by Henry. Then Freddie Ljungberg curled a free-kick against the bar.
Everton were stunned and seemed to have few ideas. Their best response came inbetween those two Arsenal chances when Steve Watson diverted a header wide after Stubbs' initial free-kick had been blocked.
However Radzinski pounced six minutes from time to send nerves jangling around Highbury. Still the drama unfolded. Li Tie fouled Ray Parlour with three minutes left and received his second yellow card.
Seconds later Joseph Yobo rose unmarked to power a header just wide of Lehmann's goal.
But Arsenal deservedly held on and, despite everything, started the new campaign with three points.
|Henry strokes home our first goal of the season from the spot||Thierry celebrates his strike|
|Pires skips round Unsworth||..and shoots..|
|Robert makes it 2-0||Robert wheels away in delight|
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