Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday February 27 2012
At times it`s been a trying season for an Arsenal fan. In fact, it`s been a trying twelve months. It had certainly been a forgettable week, with the capitulation in Milan followed by a meek exit from the F.A. Cup at Sunderland. With the relationship between supporters and players teetering on the brink of mutiny and with Tottenham in the unusual position of thinking up names for their own version of St. Totteringham`s Day, nothing less than a win would have sufficed for the red half of North London. Pride and points very much top of the agenda.
Both sides sprung something of a surprise in their selections- to me at least. Yossi Benayoun started on the left for Arsenal, leaving both Chamberlain and Gervinho kicking their heels on the bench. The manager opting for pretty much the most experienced team he could put out, with Benayoun, Arteta and Rosicky all lining up. Spurs went with a 4-4-2, which I hadn`t expected given that a draw would have sufficed for them. Kranjcar got the nod ahead of fitness doubts Rafael van der Vaart and Aaron Lennon. The home side began incredibly nervously and left huge green spaces in their own half. Inside four minutes, Adebayor pulled out to the left; Koscielny and Vermaelen allowed themselves to get sucked in. Saha ploughed into the space and accepted Adebayor`s pass.
In his desperation to get the ball onto his favoured left foot; it looked as though Saha had given Vermaelen time to snuff him out. But Saha`s effort took a cruel deflection off of the Belgian`s knee and looped awkwardly over the wrong footed Szczesny. An inauspicious start. The Arsenal full backs were over committing and the midfield was offering a lack of cover. Frankly, the middle of Arsenal`s defensive third was like a bus lane in the first twenty minutes. Spurs were outnumbering Arsenal in both halves of the pitch. However, the Gunners began to work their way into their stride. Arteta gradually got a hold of the midfield and Arsenal begun to create chances. None so point-blank as when Sagna`s cross fell to van Persie, his first shot was blocked by King. The rebound fell to his right foot, but van Persie screwed inches wide.
Sagna again was alive to a situation, taking a quick throw in to van Persie. The Dutchman allowed the ball to roll across his body, before his strike was deflected inches wide by the leg of Kaboul. From the subsequent corner, Rosicky glanced a cute header goalwards which Friedel showed impressive reflexes to bat away. However, Tottenham were still offering plenty of threat on the counter. Adebayor chased down the rusty Kieran Gibbs from Modric`s pass. Gibbs tried to shepherd back to Szczesny, but Adebayor stuck out a toe. Szczesny smothered, the rebound fell to Kyle Walker, who smashed his shit into the side netting. As with just about every North London derby nowadays, this was a breathless affair.
Spurs once again found far too much space in Arsenal`s defensive third. Modric played a clever pass to Bale who roared into the Arsenal area; took he ball away from Gibbs and Szczesny and collapsed under no contact. Mike Dean acquiesced to the histrionics that are becoming typical of Bale and gave the penalty. It was a decision he did not seem convinced of. His failure to even book Szczesny or Gibbs or whoever was deemed to have made the 'contact` attests as much. His linesman, in a much better position, did not flag for a foul but, when Dean sought his advice, did not challenge the decision. Szczesny amusingly sledged Adebayor as he spotted the ball up- possibly risking a booking for ungentlemanly conduct in the process so rumbustuous were his cries. But Adebayor remained unfazed and despatched the penalty.
His celebration on this occasion was restrained. A birthday goal in front of his most acidic detractors satisfying him enough. However, what was clear from his silly little dance was that he, and in effect Spurs, thought they had the game won. "Your season`s over" was the unrestrained cry of delight from the away enclosure. Arsenal had started slowly but did not deserve to be 2-0 down. But bookings for Luka Modric and Scott Parker proved key; it meant they could not harry and close down with the same ferocity. Arsenal clenched their teeth and their fists. But it just looked like it was not to be our day. Walcott- who I must confess I really wanted to be subbed off at this stage- played a deft touch to van Persie in the area and his low cross shot smacked the post.
As the skipper lay prone in disbelief, Gibbs was swift to pick up the loose ball and feed Arteta on the edge of the area. These are the times when your big players stand up and make their presence felt. As Arteta`s left footed cross spun into the box, one of Arsenal`s biggest had had enough. Bacary Sagna powered onto the flight of the ball and sent a thumping header past Friedel. A big contribution from one of our biggest players. No nonsense, pure desire. Exactly what was required. Sagna made his way to the net, fished the ball out and pounded it back onto the centre spot. Game on. It was an interception that inspired players and supporters as one.
Then came an intervention from our biggest player. Assou Ekotto`s woeful clearance only reached Rosicky. The Czech fed van Persie on the edge of the area, he turned Kaboul with a delightful pirouette, then as Parker closed down sent a beautiful guiding shot which snugly kissed the corner of Friedel`s net. From the position that van Persie receives the pass, I defy you to name me a player in the league that would have scored in that circumstance. A goal of such class you can only afford it the highest praise possible. It was like watching Dennis Bergkamp in his prime. That`s how good it was. All of a sudden, half time felt too soon. As Adebayor girlishly jigged in celebration at 2-0, my overriding ambition had been not to get humiliated. Eight minutes later, I knew we were going to win.
Redknapp looked to thicken up his midfield by replacing the ineffectual Kranjcar with Sandro and van der Vaart came on for Saha. It suggested Redknapp was more worried about the game than Wenger. Within a minute of the half beginning, that fear was justified. Arteta found Benayoun inside the area; his low guided shot just lacked power to beat Friedel. But on 51 minutes, Arsenal continued a recent North London derby tradition. They completed the turnaround. Rosicky spread the ball wide to Sagna then motored into the box. Sagna sent in a low cross which snuck between King and Friedel. Both hesitated, Rosicky didn`t and deftly flicked the ball into the net. His first league goal for 26 months and the culmination of a few months brilliant work. Little Mozart is conducting again.
Rosicky was at the hub of Arsenal`s attack again when he found Walcott on the right. Theo steadied himself and blasted just beyond the far post. It was a portent warning of what was to come. Spurs pressed for an equaliser and left Arsenal size gaps in their defence. Van Persie mimicked Adebayor`s early mischief, which had by now evaporated into self congratulation from the Togolese. The Dutchman pulled to the left, sucking Kaboul and King in. Walcott saw the space and steamrolled into it, Kaboul frantically waving his charges back to cover. Van Persie fed Theo; whose first touch was typically awful. His dinked finish was typically adept. The mystery of Theo Walcott laid bare. The man who, at Stamford Bridge, tripped over the ball before picking himself up to score. His touch was awkward, the ball bouncing off his right leg onto his left, pushing him wide of Friedel`s goal. But as Parker and Friedel bore down on him, he calmly clipped the ball over them. Has there ever been a more confusing player?
He was at it again minutes later. Song showed excellent feet to dribble round Modric before lofting a ball over the top of the lead footed Ledley King. Walcott was onside. Once again, his steadying touch was terrible. Once again, his second emphatic, drilling the ball into the bottom corner. A two goal lead has been surrendered in four of the last seven North London derbies. Five in the last twelve. Three of those by Arsenal. It added an extra air of satisfaction to the cries of "2-0 and you f****d it up!" Tottenham briefly threatened a response, Bale firing narrowly over from twenty five yards. But the game was up. "Adebayor, what`s the score?" rang around the stadium. The away contingent had long since shrunk into a band of unoccupied red seats.
Arsenal are a bewildering team. Capable of pathetic capitulations as evidenced in Northern Italy. But equally capable of unquenchable mental strength, to use one of the manager`s watch words. Four weeks after Arsenal had overturned a two goal deficit at home to Aston Villa, they bested much better opponents in an even more emphatic manner yesterday. The fact that those opponents happened to be our nearest and dearest made it that much sweeter and gave yours truly the only excuse he needed to spend a long afternoon in the pub toasting the victory. All of a sudden, Spurs are looking over their shoulders again, the pangs of bowel clenching doubt in their stomachs. Arsenal must use the performance and the result as the blueprint for a sprint finish.
Aside from a very questionable opening fifteen minutes or so; Arsenal were on top throughout. The collective maturity of the likes of Benayoun, Arteta and Rosicky assured we didn`t panic. The defiance and attitude of the likes of Bacary Sagna steeled us up for a comeback. The quality of van Persie and the finishing of Walcott sealed it. Koscielny and Vermaelen ensured the back door stayed firmly shut. Collective commendation is the order of the day. It needs to be the same at Anfield in five days time. But the worry about that fixture can start tomorrow. This is a morning in which we swagger into work, the weary and slightly hungover smiles telling the story of the game. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS (25.Jenkinson `75), 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 7.ROSICKY, 14.WALCOTT (27.Gervinho `88), 30.BENAYOUN (15.Chamberlain `81), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 9.J-Y.Park, 21.Fabianski, 29.Chamakh, 49.Miquel.
Date:Monday February 27 2012
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