Tottenham Hotspur 2 Arsenal 1
As many of you will have ascertained from the tone of my posts before the game, I never believed we were going to win this one. The Indian summer of North London derbies without league defeat had to end sooner or later. Harry "taxes for" Redknapp commented in the build up to the game that if Spurs could choose one game to follow a gut wrenching, lactic acid producing semi final defeat, it would be Arsenal at home. For perhaps the only time in recorded history, I believed what came out of his twitchy little mouth. This is the one match where Tottenham don`t need motivating or picking up off the floor and the one match where their supporters weren`t going to look on in moon faced resignation after Sunday`s defeat. After a quick loosener in O`Neil`s pub on Euston Road with Terry and Shaun, I made my way to Seven Sisters alone, far too tetchy and nervous to provide decent conversation. As I sat inside the ground after the long walk down Seven Sisters Road, arriving in my seat just after 7pm, I began to mentally prepare myself for defeat. I`m glad I did because I think it somewhat helped with my mood this morning. As the teams were announced, it became apparent Spurs were lining up with Defoe and Pavlyuchenko upfront with Modric playing in central midfield. It seemed Spurs had finally got over their inferiority complex and had set up on the counter attack, hoping to expose the apparent lack of pace in our centre halves. Spurs were finally prepared to play the game as underdogs.
Arsenal were buoyed by the return of van Persie, whose arrival for the warm up was met with an enthusiastic choir. Predictably, so was Sol Campbell`s, as both sides of the North London divide let him know their feelings- as if he needed telling. With both sides being in a situation of win or bust, it was no surprise the game got off to a swift start. Arsenal won a corner in the second minute, Campbell attacked the ball hungrily and it trickled goalwards off his thigh, but Benoit Assou Ekotto was on hand to clear it off the line. Arsenal had started brightly, but Spurs were happy to cede possession and hit Arsenal with a devastating counter attack on nine minutes, Danny Rose found Younes Kaboul in space on the right, his cut back found Pavlyuchenko ten yards out but his finish was thwarted with a brilliant diving block by Vermaelen. From the resulting corner, Arsenal`s positive start was wiped out with a bolt from the blue. Bale swung in a right wing corner, Almunia punched clear of the area only to see Danny Rose meet the ball with a sumptuous first time volley which flew into the net. I know most Gooners will blame Almunia for the goal (most Gooners would blame Almunia for the British weather), but the punch cleared the area and I think sometimes you have to except the exceptional nature of the strike. It`s fallen perfectly for Rose out of serendipity and his technique and the strike were unstoppable. It was one of those strikes you see once a season (remember Adebayor`s similar effort at the same end in 2007). Gomes too punched every cross that came his way, but none of his palmed clearances fell exactly onto an Arsenal player`s foot.
Arsenal did not have time to contemplate their wounds and reacted instantly. Sagna`s right wing cross found Bendtner grappling with Dawson in the box, but Dawson did just enough to put the Dane off who headed wide. Bendtner also scooped the ball wide inside the area from Nasri`s through ball. But Arsenal`s oldest and dearest foe was in attendance again soon after. Our rivalry with Spurs is long standing but injury is the real rivalry that has threatened any sort of Arsenal supremacy. Thomas Vermaelen booted the ball out of play and had to disappear straight down the tunnel. Quite literally, the entire spine of the Arsenal team was unavailable. Gallas, Vermaelen, Song, Fabregas and Arshavin, van Persie only fit enough for the bench after five months out. If Chelsea were to travel to White Hart Lane on Saturday without Terry, Carvalho, Essien, Lampard, Anelka and Drogba, would your appreciation of their chances of victory alter? Arsenal continued to press with possession, but Tottenham were content to bring numbers back to the edge of their box and look dangerous on the counter attack. There wasn`t much to choose between the teams, but if I could elucidate one key difference it would be in central midfield. Luka Modric, a slight flair player, pressed and hounded on the edge of his own box and outmuscled Abou Diaby on countless occasions. Diaby wandered through the match with the air of a cat pawing through its litter tray. At times it seemed Sol Campbell`s will power alone could carry Arsenal through, it was his nod down from Nasri`s corner which seemed to be destined to go out of play that found Rosicky, but his close range shot was blocked by King.
But still Spurs looked menacing on the counter, Modric bundled his way through a Clichy challenge on the edge of the area, but Almunia was out smartly to foil him, Campbell completed the clearance. Half time of what was a breathless contest and a moment of brilliance separated the sides. Tottenham wheeled David Ginola onto the pitch at half time, and he was beautifully serenaded with a chorus of "You`re just a shit Robert Pires" which was probably a back handed compliment in any case. The Gunners needed a quick response but some very poor defending put a fading title chance truly into touch for another season. Defoe was allowed time and space on the left by Denilson and Eboue to turn and pick out a simple pass which saw Clichy stand statue in response to a run from Gareth Bale, Sagna hung back in the defensive line playing Bale onside, whilst Silvestre lacked any sort of awareness to cover his full back. The ball trickled through to Bale untroubled and he slotted past Almunia from close range. We had well and truly shot ourselves in the foot. Spurs fans will see Bale`s goal as a vindication of his performances of late, which have looked impressive from afar.
Arsenal`s response was to toss Theo Walcott into the fray, and the Spurs fans greeted him with a tuneful rendition of "You`re just a shit Aaron Lennon." Harsh. Arsenal sought to get Walcott involved where possible and it was his slide rule pass that gave Bendtner a sight of goal from a narrow angle, he smashed it narrowly wide. These were the chances we would have to take to take anything from the game. Arsene got that message and sent for van Persie. The Dutchman`s arrival instantly imbued us with more purpose and direction in the final third; I was utterly astounded at how sharp he looked 9though he did quite understandably wince in a 50-50 in central midfield). It was his movement across the front line that and willingness to pull defenders out of position which gave us greater purpose.
That said, Tottenham`s own substitute might have added gloss to the score line. Walcott completely neglected his defensive duties as Bale and Assou Ekotto combined on the left, Assou Ekotto cut the ball back to Gudjohnsen, only for the Icelander to scuff the ball wide. The Gunners were beginning to turn the screw, even though a draw was not much good to us, this team simply don`t do lying down and accepting defeat. Diaby`s sole meaningful contribution of the game (for Arsenal anyway) saw him clip a pass into the penalty area, van Persie produced trademark chest trap and volley but Gomes thrust out his right paw with a stunning instinctive stop. Van Persie was again a crucial link in the chain when he set up Rosicky for a shot from the edge of the area which deflected narrowly wide. The Dutchman brought purpose and vigour upfront and when he earned a free kick on the edge of the box you realised he brought us a set piece threat too. And his consequent free kick was blasted straight at the top corner, an almost inch perfect strike only for Gomes to somehow get across in time to tip it away from the top corner. It`s hard to believe van Persie could have placed it any better, a truly unbelievable stop.
From the resulting corner, Campbell rose like a salmon, his whole being personifying steel and desire, to climb above Dawson and power a header goalwards, but Gomes again seemed to almost reach backwards into his goal to scoop the ball onto the underside of the bar and out. Sometimes it`s just not your night. But Arsenal were able to set the cat amongst the pigeons for the final five minutes. Van Persie found Walcott on the right and his precision low cross yielded an easy tap in for Nicklas Bendtner. Game on. Van Persie proved the inspiration again as the away side pushed for an equaliser, he cut in from the right and spanked a right foot shot towards goal which Gomes was equal to, Walcott seared in for the rebound but was blocked by Dawson. The linesman somehow called it as a goal kick. Like I said, sometimes it`s not your night. Arsenal`s last chance of pressure in the 93rd minute was squandered when Silvestre fluffed the simplest three yard pass you have ever seen under no pressure. Spurs won the ball back and Arsenal never had it in their possession again.
The final whistle saw a swift dash to the exit, your best way of getting away from White Hart Lane in one piece as an Arsenal fan is if the locals are still inside celebrating their cup final. As it turned out, it was one of the most hassle free exits onto the Seven Sister`s Road have ever experienced. But then I am used to running that gauntlet with the hosts burning with anger. This time they were too happy to goad us too aggressively. It was always going to happen one day and we will lose to Spurs again, in a way it`s a monkey off the back. As Rocky mentioned last night, the fact that we have maintained such an unbeaten league run against them has left me predicting defeats in this fixture for at least four years now. In the end, there was not an awful lot to choose between the teams, both showed great commitment, great desire and played in the correct spirit, the referee had a good game and it`s hard to find grounds for complaint. I felt we were worth a draw but there have been plenty of times over the last ten years when Spurs have left these games empty handed having deserved more. Ultimately, we had the entire spine of our team missing which didn`t help, but credit to Spurs, they had players missing too and for the first time in living memory, they accepted they couldn`t match us and played cleverly on the counter attack instead, which worked for them. They made the key moments of the game go their way with a couple of well taken goals and a handful of world class saves. Ultimately, the difference was the second goal, Arsenal made the sort of defensive lapse Spurs did not replicate. So ends our title hopes, but it was a dim and distant dream in any case. We will be in the title shake up again next year, that you can be sure of.LD.
1.ALMUNIA©, 3.SAGNA (14.Walcott `56), 31.CAMPBELL, 5.VERMAELEN (18.Silvestre `21), 22.CLICHY, 15.DENILSON (11.v.Persie `65), 2.DIABY, 8.NASRI, 27.EBOUE, 7.ROSICKY, 52.BENDTNER. Unused: 9.Eduardo, 21.Fabianski, 32.Merida, 37.Eastmond.