Small wonder that Arsene Wenger accepted the punishment meted out after his shouting session against Sunderland afternoon with such a muted response. He’s down £8,000 financially (although clubs are usually held liable for fines run up by their staff) and he’s missing this evening’s League Cup match against Tottenham Hotspur. Considering that Wenger has been openly displaying his contempt for the competition for as long as anybody remember, he might have been tempted to relax at home this evening with a couple of glasses of chablis and a packet or two of Twiglets. As anyone that has ever pulled a sickie will know, the most satisfying days off are those that are unplanned, rather than those booked months in advance. This being football, however, he’s in the ground tonight anyway – just in the stand rather than on the bench. It may cause one or two wonder what sort of punishment exactly this was meant to be.
In a way, however, both teams have something to prove at White Hart Lane this evening. Arsenal have been as exquisite as anyone could have hoped for this season against weaker opposition such as Blackpool, Braga and Bolton Wanderers but, much as Arsenal supporters are growing increasingly tetchy at the mention of it, it’s now five years since they last won a major trophy and an early exit from even this competition at the hands of their local rivals would be unlikely to please many of their supporters, no matter how many of them talk of how “it’s all about the Champions League/Premier League these days”. The psychological boost of winning a cup can’t be understated. Alex Ferguson, for example, should know how important the 1990 FA Cup Final was in the development of his all-conquering Manchester United team.
Spurs, meanwhile, have met an inevitable crossroads. Earning a place in the Champions League is one thing, but consolidating that position and holding their own in the aforementioned money-pit is a whole other. They fallen some way short of what many might have expected of them so far this season, with a performance in the first leg of the qualifier for the Champions League that was so poor that it threatened to curtail their involvement in the competition before it had even started and disappointing performances in the Premier League against teams that they would certainly have expected to beat – Wigan Athletic and West Bromwich Albion. Spurs supporters are well used to false dawns, but another League Cup wouldn’t go amiss this season. It also hasn’t been often over the last couple of decades that Spurs have been anywhere being in the ascendency in recent meetings between the two sides and local pride counts for at least something, even if it is only the reserves playing this evening.
Considering that received wisdom might tell us that the League Cup doesn’t matter any more, no-one seems to have told the crowd at White Hart Lane this evening. For all of its shortcomings, it remains the best ground in the Premier League for atmosphere and, after a minute of warm applause for the recently-deceased Spurs striker Bobby Smith, the noise of the crowd soon rises to crescendo levels. For all the noise created by the home supporters, however, Arsenal have fielded a stronger team than they have done in this competition in previous years and they look sharper and more composed in the opening stages. After fifteen minutes, they take the lead when some slick passing leads to a low cross from Jack Wilshere which is turned over the line from a couple of yards out by Henri Lansbury.
For the rest of the half, Spurs are chasing shadows. Easy as it is to mock those that drool over Arsenal as if they play football at a higher intellectual level than anybody else, on evenings such as this evening they are difficult to resist. The Spurs goalkeeper Pletikosa makes a couple of decent saves whilst, at the other end, the best that Spurs can manage is a shot form Roman Pavlyuchenko that smacks into the side netting. Half-time can’t come quickly enough for Tottenham, whose second string looks lumpen and is second to almost every ball. They seem to be struggling to come to terms with a formation that they are not used to and something has to change. Harry Redknapp, possibly stung by the reaction of the home supporters as the teams leave the pitch for the break, opts to revert to a more familiar formation and introduces a little more experience in the shape of Robbie Keane and Aaron Lennon at half-time.
Three minutes into the second half, Spurs get, and use, their Get Out Of Jail Free Card. The hitherto anonymous Kyle Naughton threads the ball for Robbie Keane. Keane, who may or may not be blinking like a new born calf, runs onto the ball and drives it inside Fabianski’s near post. It’s a brace of good luck. Keane looked comfortably offside, for one thing, and Arsene Wenger may have had to cause to spit chablis and Twiglets everywhere at Lukasz Fabianski for allowing the ball to squeeze the ball in at his near post had he not sacrificed a night in front of the sofa to sit in the White Hart Lane stands, but Spurs are level nevertheless. It’s as if the first half never happened, and the match feels, for fifteen minutes or so, a lot more even. Arsenal continue to dominate possession, but Spurs look livelier on the break and Arsenal remain infuriatingly shot-shy. With three minutes left to play, Denilson has a shot shot palmed away but for all the finery on display there is precious little to get terribly excited about. The impending extra-time carries a degree of inevitability about it.
Within five minutes of the start of extra-time, however, Spurs throw away any realistic chance that they might have had of winning the tie. Thirty seconds in, a harmless looking ball into the penalty area looks as if it is going to get away from Samir Nasri, but Sebastien Bassong gives him a helping hand by grabbing hold of his shirt and pulling him back. Nasri picks himself up and sends Pletikosa the wrong way from the penalty spot to give Arsenal the lead again. Four minutes later, Steven Caulker hauls Chamakh down from a through ball by Arshavin and Nasri again beats Pletikosa to effectively put Arsenal into the next round. With the players starting to tire, however, the pitch is starting to open up. A free far post header from David Bentley clips the outside of the post at one end while, at the other, a low, sweeping ball across the penalty area from Arshavin is only narrowly missed by Chamakh. With seconds left of the first period of extra time to play, Arshavin arrows a low, driven shot across the penalty area. Even before Robbie Keane has a shot scrambled off the line, Arsenal, beyond any reasonable doubt, are through to the next round of the competition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second period of extra-time is something of a non-event. As White Hart Lane starts to empty Spurs manage to create a couple of half-chances but their spirit is broken and Arsenal play out the final fifteen minutes without needing to break into much of a sweat. Quite where this lays on the scale of psychological damage for the home side is a matter for debate. It’s Arsenal’s biggest win at White Hart Lane for over thirty years, but although whichever side lost this match was always likely to throw in their “It’s Only The League Cup” card, for Spurs this is a troubling result. If they are going to play more matches this season than in previous years on account of their Champions League involvement, they will need to work more as a squad and there were precious few amongst their number this evening that looked up to the task.
Arsenal, meanwhile, continue their free-scoring start to the season and, on the evidence of tonght’s performance, the League Cup (at the very least) looks like an eminently achievable target. They played a stronger team than some may have expected this evening, but this is, broadly speaking, irrelevant. All that a football team, no matter who is in it, can do is win its matches and, although the margin of defeat ended up a little tough on Spurs, Arsenal thoroughly deserved their win this evening and did it in a manner which suggests that they are plenty capable of mounting a serious challenge in all competitions this season. After several years of drought, the green shoots of recovery are fully on display in the red and white corner of North London this evening.