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Continental treat served up as part of odd season

THE eternal certainties of England's top flight are being sorely tested.

Gerard Deulofeu celebrates with Ross Barkley
Gerard Deulofeu celebrates with Ross Barkley

The most physical, frenetic, elite division in the world hurtles towards the festive season with more questions than a Mastermind Christmas special and with more than its fair share of passes.

Arsenal and Everton yesterday played out the sort of match that would once only have been the preserve of an encounter at the business end of a continental league. This was a contest where possession was retained, passing was quick and accurate and the tactical acumen of both Roberto Martinez of Everton and Arsene Wenger of Arsenal was employed not just to create problems but to stifle the opposition.

The peculiarity of the 2012/13 season can be gauged by Arsenal scoring when a backpost header from Theo Walcott found Mesut Oezil inside the six-yard box. Arsenal, strangely, lost the possession battle with Everton. Everton, who equalised through a powerful strike from Gerard Deulofeu, made the Barcelona player feel somewhat at home with a display that was technically astute and with an almost Catalan respect for the ball and on whose toes it should remain.

The further oddness of this match was that the outstanding midfielder did not come from Spain, Germany or even in the shape of the vibrant Aaron Ramsey, from Wales. The starring role was reserved for Ross Barkley, the Scouser who celebrated his 20th birthday this week and then cavorted around the Emirates like a man-child who has consumed too many energy drinks at his party.

Roy Hodgson, the England manager, watched this Rooney-lite sparkle in a role just behind Romelu Lukaku and must have already scribbled Barkley's name in the party for Brazil. The midfielder was simply excellent on an afternoon when Arsenal ultimately lost a lead but could have lost a match.

Barkley, ably assisted by James McCarthy, a refugee from the hurly burly of Scottish football, was the very personification of Martinez's will to test Arsenal in a trial of speed and passing. The Spaniard has three players in his team who could be helping other sides win a title.

Gareth Barry, strong and resolute in from of Everton's back four, is still in the employ of Manchester City. Lukaku, confident and powerful, is a Chelsea forward. Deulofeu, clever and completely undisturbed by pressure or expectation, is a Barcelona player in temperament, technique and reality. The triumph of Martinez is that he has blended these recruits into a coherent force and also encouraged them to believe in a united cause. Everton can thus look back on a week when they took four points from visits to Old Trafford and the Emirates.

Arsenal, who collectively roused themselves after a dull start, can be consoled by a glance at the league table that shows them five points clear of a group of pursuers that include a Chelsea team who cannot take a point from Stoke City and, further back, a Manchester City side who underachieve away from home. With Manchester United so far in the rear they are in danger of being lapped, the table is a curious sight. Arsenal are perceived to have a doubtful mentality, a paucity of strikers and a recent history of failure. All of this is believed to conspire against title aspirations.

Against Everton yesterday they were tried but did not break. Indeed, they had the best chances of the match through Olivier Giroud and Ramsey with Tim Howard making two smart saves. The American, though, could only look on as Giroud's shot in the dying embers of the match smacked a post.

But Arsenal did not win after leading 1-0 at home against a side with considerable talent but with restricted hopes about title challenges. This relative failure will keep doubts about Wenger's team alive. They have lost in big matches against Manchester United, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund and face Manchester City on Saturday after a visit to Napoli. Chelsea and Newcastle away await before Santa comes. Arsenal's title aspirations will be better assessed once these matches have been negotiated.

Wenger has cause to be optimistic, and a need to be positive. His moans about Everton fouling were daft but he was right to insist that consistency will be rewarded. Privately, he can cast a jaundiced eye at a Chelsea side who are losing goals with a facility most unusual for a team coached by Jose Mourinho and a City side that cannot prosper away from Manchester.

This has given his Arsenal a comfortable lead at the top of the table but they have not given the chasers the slip. The commentators will shout about a wide-open race for the Premier League but the contenders may only stretch to these three. There may be mutters about this assertion on Merseyside but Liverpool and Everton do not yet look likely to maintain a sustained run in the league.

Martinez, though, can be consoled by his early days at Goodison. He has changed both personnel and style. But he has also inherited a gem. "I have never seen an English player with that sort of mentality," the Spaniard said. "Ross has incredible potential, we need to give him time and accept he is not ready yet."

The final note of caution jarred slightly with the evidence presented at the Emirates. The jury may be out on the title pretensions of the leading teams but Barkley's actions were hugely convincing.

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