It’s a lunchtime kick-off for the North London derby, and there are still a few empty seats on display at The Emirates Stadium. A chance for that one last drink before kick-off. Supporters of both teams could well be forgiven for taking the opportunity to have that drink today. Arsenal will go top of the Premier League table if they win today, but they have been strangely limp at home against Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion already this season. Spurs supporters, meanwhile, have been receiving mixed messages from their team so far this season. For every win against Internazionale, there has been a defeat at Bolton Wanderers. If their Champions League season isn’t to be a one-off, they need to improve their consistency. Which Spurs will we see this afternoon, though?
In theory, Spurs’ record at Arsenal is sufficiently dismal for the travelling supporters to be able to travel without too much expectation, but local derbies don’t, of course, work like this. Office, factory, building site and interet forum “bragging rights” (for the want of a better phrase, one of which there must be) will depend upon what happens over the next hour and three-quarters or so. They start brightly enough, but it doesn’t take long for Arsenal to start asserting themselves, and after eight minutes they take the lead. It’s a goal from the Autoroute One school of football. Fabregas send the ball down the middle for Samir Nasri to chase onto. Heurelho Gomes, who had already looked shaky dealing with a cross, is too slow off his line and Nasri nicks the ball around him and turns the ball over the line from an improbable angle.
For the next fifteen minutes, it looks as if it is a mere formality that Arsenal will disappear out of sight. Arsenal are slick and fluid, whilst Spurs are not far short of invisible. Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon are nowhere to be seen as Arsenal poke the ball around with confidence and ease. Spurs finally manage to get something approaching a decent spell of possession which ends with Younes Kaboul dropping a header a couple of yards wide of the post, but Arsenal’s second goal shows up Tottenham’s defensive shortcomings in the most glaring sense possible. Nasri to Arshavin, on the left wing. Arshavin crosses and Marouane Chamakh turns the ball past Gomes and in.
Modric fires a literal shot in retaliation from thirty yards, but it’s a comfortable save for Fabianski. It’s a shot borne of frustration. Spurs are being outplayed by Arsenal and Harry Redknapp – for some reason, this doesn’t feel like a massive surprise – is being out-thought by Arsene Wenger. Long before half-time, the match has taken on the shape of a training match. Arsenal ease off the pace a little with a second goal but the Spurs players are chasing shadows. Arshavin has approximately a quarter of a chance just before half-time but mis-controls and sees the ball squirt out of his control. It doesn’t, at the moment, really feel as if it will matter. There has been very little in the first half to suggest that this will be anything other than a very comfortable home win for Arsenal.
Five minutes into the second half, though, Spurs find a way back into the match. It starts, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the Spurs corner flag with a long, raking pass towards the centre circle. Jermaine Defoe, a half-time introduction for Aaron Lennon, wins a header against a strangely leaden-footed Laurent Koscielny and turns the ball into the path of Rafael Van Der Vaart, who utilises a gap in the Arsenal back line to release the ball for Gareth Bale, who slides the ball under Fabianski and in. With this goal, the pattern and feel of the game change immediately. This is a completely transformed Spurs performance from the first half, as their confidence noticeably starts to flow again. Luka Modric whistles a shot narrowly over Fabianski’s crossbar.
It feels like it is coming, and midway through the half it does. It has, by this time, become apparent that Arsenal haven’t turned out for the second half yet. They have, however, managed to turn the pressure back onto Spurs and managed a couple of half-chances. The penalty award has a hint of farce about it. Spurs are awarded a free-kick twenty-five yards from goal, and Rafael Van Der Vaart elects to shoot. Cesc Fabregas jumps with his arm up, however, and blocks the ball with it. Van Der Vaart steps up himself and places the ball into the net with ease to complete a quite extraordinary turnaround.
With Tottenham’s second goal, this match finally becomes the contest that it should have been from the start. Arsenal have a goal correctly chalked off for offside and Gomes, who has come to life along with the rest of his team, makes a splendid one-handed save from Fabregas and then, in one of those moments when the crowd takes a couple of seconds to catch up with what is happening on the pitch, a looping cross from the right catches the Spurs defence absolutely cold and Koscielny, six yards out and with only Gomes to beat, heads over the crossbar. All of this might suggest that it’s one-way traffic, but Spurs are playing a full part in a match that is now swaying from end to end like a ship in a storm.
As the match heads into the final ten minutes, Spurs find their feet after a shaky ten minutes and with five minutes left to play they snatch a most unlikely third goal. It’s a simple goal. Too simple, almost. A free-kick from the right hand side spins into the penalty area and Younes Kaboul of all people, the same Younes Kaboul that has had a wretched eighty-five minutes in defence, appears like a ghost to flick the ball past Fabanski to win the match. Kaboul wheels away with a look of absolute disbelief on his face. He can’t believe it. We can’t believe it, either. Five minutes stoppage time isn’t enough to salvage this for Arsenal. They push forward in absloute desperation, but this time there is no late goal and Spurs have won at Arsenal in the league for the first time in seventeen years.
This was a match that Arsenal lost just as much as Spurs won. They were coasting at half-time, and lackadaisical defending saw them throw away what should have been an unassailable position. There are some that are now starting to call this season a title that no-one wants to win, and there is a chance that there might have been as much cheering in West London and Manchester at this result. Spurs, it seems, remain too flaky to be able to stick out a run for the Premier League title itself. On the basis of their first half performance today, they would struggle to finish the season much above mid-table. On the basis of the second, however, they could be forgiven for believing that the sky is the limit. Arsenal, meanwhile, have now lost three of their last five home matches. The life was sucked out of them with the first Spurs goal, but familiar doubts remain with performances like these.
Wins in derby matches don’t amount to any more than any other three points in the Premier League table and Arsenal can still challenge for the Premier League. It’s a bad result for them, though, and the dread possibility of Chelsea and Manchester United disappearing into the horizon looms on the horizon. For the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur at least, though, this will be a cathartic day. Seventeen years is a long time to wait to beat your local rivals away from home and the question now remains over whether this will be a springboard to greater success. More importantly, over the next few days or weeks they can rule the roost over North London, and that is something that hasn’t happened too frequently in recent years.
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