It’s a warm evening in North London, halfway between the full bloom of spring and the cloying heat of the summer, and White Hart Lane is on edge. This evening’s derby match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal finds both clubs at a crossroads. Spurs’ advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League may have created the mirage that playing in the competition again next season was something like a certainty, but the truth of the matter is that qualification for it at the end of last season was a massive achievement in itself. To do so again would double the achievement, but the expectation of the club’s support has been inflated by this year’s performance in the competition.
For Arsenal, the issue is a different one. Champions League qualification is, for the fifteenth year, a certainty, but the Kroenke take-over and the team’s tepid performances in several recent matches has fuelled a debate both amongst the club’s support and in the media. How long is too long without a trophy? At what point can Arsene Wenger’s spell in charge of the club be described as “stale”? It seems odd that the club in second place in the Premier League could be inspiring such debates – especially considering the fact that the door leading to the Premier League trophy remains slightly ajar after Manchester United’s failure to win at Newcastle last night – and the internalising of the last few weeks or so may be soothed by the calamine lotion of a derby win at White Hart Lane.
Matches between these two clubs have a long and distinct history of being unpredictable, but the first half of this match is as extraordinary as any (including Spurs’ comeback at The Emirates earlier this season) in recent years. Within five minutes, Arsenal have the lead with the Spurs defence momentarily vanishing for Theo Walcott to drive the ball past Gomes and in. The lead lasts for less than two minutes before Spurs are level, with the Arsenal defence returning the compliment for Rafael Van Der Vaart, who puts the ball past Szczesny. Under normal circumstances, we might expect the game to settle after such a frantic opening, but there is no realistic chance of this happening and Arsenal are back in front after eleven minutes, with a low shot from Samir Nasri which – to no-one’s great surprise – Gomes is slow to react to.
Such is the furious pace of this match that it doesn’t even seem to be a great surprise when Arsenal extend their lead five minutes from half-time, still less that it comes thanks to a defensive mistake. William Gallas gets caught in two minds over whether to clear a cross or bring the ball under control, manages neither and the ball rolls to Walcott, who flicks the ball back to Van Persie, who, at the second attempt, heads the ball past Gomes and in. Even this, though, is but a temporary buffer for Arsenal. Four minutes later, Tom Huddlestone has moment of individual brilliance with a cleanly driven half-volley which fizzes past Szczesny and in. Half-time comes with a sense that the opening forty-five minutes has been played as if at double speed on a DVD player.
The second half starts with the chaotic freneticism of the first, but the clinical edge of the finishing seems to have dried up somewhat. Spurs edge the possession, but – and this isn’t without reason, considering the antics of the home defence during the first half – there is a palpable feeling of panic every time the ball approaches the Spurs penalty area. Robin Van Persie has the ball in the net only to see his goal disallowed for offside. Spurs, having started the second half reasonably well, though, are allowing Arsenal too much space in attacking positions, but then, and quite out of the blue, Spurs are level. Aaron Lennon is sent free and nicks the ball past Szczesny, who trips him as he passes. Van Der Vaart steps up and sends the goalkeeper the wrong way to bring Tottenham level.
Still, though the chances continue to fall. A low cross from the right finds Modric unmarked, six yards out and, even though he scuffs his shot somewhat, it is still a brilliant save from Szczesny to keep the scores level. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, Gomes saves well from Fabregas whilst, at the other end of the pitch, Peter Crouch’s header is tipped over by Szczesny. A couple of minutes after this, the ball squeezes through to Van Der Vaart, whose low shot is saved again by Szczesny. It is breathless, extraordinary football, and Spurs are finishing the more strongly of the two sides. Aaron Lennon cuts in from the left and finds himself a little space in the penalty area, only to shoot straight at Szczesny.
It has been the sort of game that makes one yearn for thirteen minutes of stoppage time, but the fourth official signals only three minutes. A point each does neither of these teams any favours but, Arsenal had come on strongly in the last five minutes of the ninety, it is Spurs that pour forward as the final one hundred and eighty seconds, but time is on neither team’s side and a low shot at the other end courtesy of Cesc Fabregas that fizzes a couple of yard wide of Gomes’ right-hand post. It finishes level and, with this result, the true winners of the North London derby can only realistically be regarded as Manchester City and Manchester United.
For Arsenal, United’s draw at Newcastle last night gave them a chance to close a gap that was starting to look insurmountable. They can still trim that lead when they play United at The Emirates Stadium on the first of May, but the six point gap at the top, with Chelsea having leapfrogged into second place by virtue of having beaten Birmingham City this evening, may be too great to bridge. Spurs, meanwhile, face conflicting emotions. They have come from two goals behind to hold their local rivals to a draw, but it is a result that does them no great favours, either. A win this evening would have put them level on points with Manchester City, albeit with an inferior goal difference, and they also have one final chance to close that gap with a trip to Eastlands on the tenth of May, but they also have away matches against Chelsea and Liverpool left to play. A second fourth place finish seems like a tall order now. When the chips are down, local quarrels are one thing, but the wider picture is something else and this evening’s result feels like two points dropped for both sides. Still, though, it was one of the matches of the season, and we should all be grateful for that.
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