Arsenal 5 Tottenham Hotspur 2
I`ve been to a lot of North London derbies in my life time, at Wembley, Old Trafford, Highbury, Emirates, White Hart Lane. None started quite in the manner that yesterday`s did though. A good friend that I had been attending games with for the last ten years or so died very suddenly three weeks ago. Yesterday morning, we officially said goodbye to him at a small church in Rotherhithe. I`m not sure if Greg`s family deliberately arranged for the service to be a morning affair so that his Arsenal friends could make their way on the overground to Highbury and Islington to the game. But it seemed both incredibly sad and poignant, yet simultaneously fitting that we made the same journey Greg himself made hundreds of times to N5 without him in tow.
We arrived around 15 minutes before kickoff. The usual tumble dryer of nerves one experiences in one`s stomach took a little longer to materialise, but by the time I had taken my seat, my stomach was in knots. This is the only game that does that to me in any serious way nowadays. It`s just one game I really hate to lose. I`m a fairly calm person but I know this game brings out the worst in me. I become a wailing ball of anxiety. Every Spurs touch of the ball is the symptom of some huge fault on our part, I become like an angry dad on a touchline angrily barking at his beleaguered son to "Hit him!" and "Just f*****g clear it!"
Spurs surprised me at least by lining up with a straight 4-4-2. Defoe and Adebayor playing together with Bale and Lennon either side signalled their intent to win the match. But I expected to see Dempsey playing in behind a lone striker. United, Schalke and Chelsea found great currency in sitting a player on Mikel Arteta to disrupt Arsenal`s build up play. Spurs started the brighter and thought they`d taken the lead on 8 minutes. Bale`s free kick was headed clear by Mertesacker, but only as far as Huddlestone. His shot was blocked and fell to William Gallas, who tucked the loose ball into the roof of the net only to be denied by the linesman`s flag.
But Arsenal`s offside trap wasn`t in such fine fettle two minutes later. Verthongen played a measured through ball and Mertesacker tried to push up and play Defoe offside. Koscielny and Vermaelen stayed back however. Koscielny was forced to abandon post to try and block Defoe, so when Szczesny saved his shot, Adebayor was all alone to sweep home the rebound. He duly celebrated with one of those stupid little dances he does that made me want to punch him out, even when he was performing them in the red and white. Yet in the last 19 encounters between the two sides, the team to draw first blood has only emerged victorious 6 times. Spurs nearly swept into a quickfire two goal lead when Bale found Lennon on the right hand side and he teased the ball through Vermaelen`s legs and agonisingly wide of the upright.
But Wilshere and Arsenal were just beginning to get a foothold in the game when its complexion was altered. Mertesacker chested the ball down for Cazorla out on the right hand side, the ball was short and Adebayor unnecessarily lunged and caught Cazorla on the ankle, the tackle was high and late. Webb`s decision made easy. I did momentarily think that Vermaelen should have pulled Wilshere over for a quiet word in his shell like, he was running around like a man possessed and I felt he constituted a high risk for a red card himself. Fortunately, the Gunners got back into the game quick enough so that his apparent frustration distilled.
Wilshere took out the open faced sand wedge to tickle a sweet ball to Walcott on the right. Walcott twisted his way past Naughton and clipped a cross into the area. Per Mertesacker somehow found himself upfront and arched his neck muscles back and directed a firm header into Hugo Lloris` top corner to score his first goal for the club. Arsenal scented blood and didn`t relent. Wilshere`s free kick was helped on its way to goal by Giroud, but his compatriot Lloris tipped it over with an embellished save. Santi Cazorla warmed up his radar after he received Arteta`s pass 30 yards from goal, strode forward before unleashing a fizzing left foot shot which clipped the roof of the net on its way over the crossbar.
Arsenal were turning the screw, Spurs were struggling to cope with the wave of attacks and the home side got their reward. Arteta fed Wilshere, who tried to flick the ball back into the Spaniard`s path with a "round the corner" touch. Huddlestone`s ample, ample frame got in the way however and he unwittingly directed the ball to Podolski. With Walcott playing on the shoulder and occupying Naughton so much that Verthongen persistently had to drift over to cover his left back, Poldi was freed to take up more central positions. He received the ball with his back to goal on the penalty spot, turned Gallas and scuffed a shot which trickled into the corner via Gallas` heel.
Tottenham were reeling and AVB instantly sent Dawson to warm up. Naughton was not coping with the movement of Walcott. Meanwhile Podolski and Vermaelen were keeping the pressure on Spurs` right hand side. Kyle Walker completed just 47% of his attempted passes in the first half. Lennon wasn`t much better with 63%. Arsenal pressed both relentlessly. Cazorla, Walcott and Podolski buzzed in behind Giroud and it was the little Spaniard that was the hub of Arsenal`s next goal. He had been fouled by Sandro on the edge of the area, but clambered back to his feet, powered past Lennon and sent a low cross into the area. Olivier Giroud fought off the attentions of both Gallas and Verthongen by stabbing the ball low and into the corner. A trademark striker`s goal and one that tells you everything about Giroud`s confidence at the moment.
Villas Boas made his half time changes, with Naughton and Walker making way for Dawson and Dempsey. Spurs went to three at the back, which gave them a foothold in possession as Arsenal only play with one nominal striker. It enabled them to bring the ball out of defence unchallenged and try to assert themselves on the match. For the first ten minutes of the half, Arsenal, who had surrendered two goals leads in their previous two matches, looked nervous and confused by the Spurs change. But Arsenal soon settled and looked to have finished the game on the hour mark. Szczesny`s long clearance was headed on by Giroud. Walcott took the ball down and steered a pass to Podolski on the left. Now Spurs` back 3 had a naked look about it and Cazorla completed the undressing of the Tottenham rearguard when he met Podolski`s low cross first time and passed it into the net.
However, as the chants of "You`re sh*t and you know you are!" rained down on the travelling support, Arsenal characteristically lost their concentration. Mertesacker kept a ball in next to Arsenal`s right touchline, yet nobody reacted when Sandro headed it forward to Bale. The Welsh winger had no serious pressure to negotiate and steered a right footed shot past Szczesny from 20 yards. Suddenly, the nerves began to grip the stadium again. The ghost of North London derbies past haunted the consciousness of the stadium as Bale again ploughed his way down the left wing. But instead of presenting Jermain Defoe with a simple tap in, he drove a low shot wide from a tight angle. The exhalation in the stadium walls was audible.
However, Arsenal reassumed control of the game, despite AVB`s bonkers post match assessment that Spurs dominated the 90 minutes. Prolonged possession was the name of the game, Szczesny even pulled out the "come and get me" trick to the Spurs forwards to eat up some seconds. Sub Andre Santos fed Vermaelen, who had torn forward as the home side`s nerves settled, but a superb last ditch tackle from Lennon prevented him from adding to Tottenham`s misery. However, injury time brought due reward when Verthongen played a tied pass straight to the feet of the sprightly Chamberlain. He raced past Verthongen and into the Tottenham area and squared for Walcott, who took a settling touch before guiding the ball past Huge Lloris. 5-2, just as it was in February. At the end, the Arsenal players executed a miniature lap of honour whilst Tottenham`s beleaguered players were left to applaud some empty seats.
It was a crucial victory on so many levels. Local pride is always at the forefront of the supporters` minds and rightly so. But Spurs are genuinely a threat in the race for Champions League qualification. It was also important for Arsenal`s confidence after some damaging results for morale. Having successfully protected a two goal lead, hopefully the back line can take some heart from that even if the defensive performance was still not quite vintage. But we are scoring again and Giroud is turning into a really nice figurehead for our attacks, with Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla all buzzing around behind him. The 4th goal demonstrated that he can give us an extra dimension even when he isn`t on the end of moves. For now, one is simply to enjoy the bragging rights. I know Greg would have. LD.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN (c), 8.ARTETA, 10.WILSHERE (16.Ramsey `72), 19.S.CAZORLA, 14.WALCOTT, 9.PODOLSKI (11.A.Santos `80), 12.GIROUD (15.Chamberlain `86). Unused: 22. Coquelin, 23.Arshavin, 24.Mannone, 25.Jenkinson.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: 25.LLORIS, 28.WALKER (2.Dempsey H/T), 13.GALLAS(c), 5.VERTHONGEN, 16.NAUGHTON (20.Dawson H/T), 7.LENNON, 6.HUDDLESTONE (46.Carroll `72), 30.SANDRO, 11.BALE, 10.ADEBAYOR, 18.DEFOE. Unused: 22.Sygurdsson, 24.Freidel, 25.Livermore, 31.Townsend.