Ah, the local derby. That one time in the year when we are permitted to drop many of the vestiges of being civilised people and devolve back to our cave-dwelling, territorial roots. It’s a day for eyes to twitch, the rational to become irrational, for the stories of injustices of days gone by to be reheated and passed on to new generations. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have lived alongside each other for as long as the game has flourished in London and, while neither side is likely to win the Premier League this season, tensions at The Emirates Stadium are as high as ever.
For once, it is Spurs that go into this match in the ascendency. Although they have been less than impressive away from White Hart Lane over the last couple of months, they remain comfortable in third place in the table, while Arsenal remain an increasingly distant spot on the horizon, with recent defeats in the FA Cup and Champions League having all but ended any chances of ending their recent mini-drought of trophy wins in recent years. While Harry Redknapp is being talked up as the next England manager, Arsene Wenger is under the sort of pressure that frequently results in a manager’s departure from a club. It has been a topsy-turvy sort of season in that respect.
If the nerves of Arsenal supporters are jangling, then the cause for this becomes apparent within four minutes. A speculative ball forward finds Emmanuel Adebayor in a little space on the left. He spins away from Laurent Koscielny with ease, and finds practically no defence in front of him. His pass to Louis Saha finds his man, and Saha’s shot is deflected up, off Thomas Vermaelen, over Wojciech Szczęsny and in. It’s a disastrous goal, one which sums up every shortcoming that Arsenal have displayed elsewhere this season. Whether it will settle the nerves of Spurs supporters, however, is a different matter altogether.
Arsenal respond positively to this set-back, though, and have significant chances to draw level within the next twenty minutes or so. Robin Van Persie – the man that has single-handedly kept Arsenal’s performance anywhere near respectable this season – shoots wide from seven yards out, a deflected shot from the edge of the penalty area brushes against the side-netting and, from the resulting corner, Tomas Rosicky’s header is brilliantly saved by the Premier League’s equivalent to Benjamin Button, Brad Friedel. It’s an encouraging response, though, and The Emirates Stadium crowd, so often criticised for not getting behind its team, responds by raising the volume to uncharacteristically high levels.
Yet the goal won’t come, and Arsenal’s defensive troubles remain. Every time Spurs break out of defence – although this occurs with a frequency that diminishes as the half wears on – the Arsenal defence takes on many of the character traits of a wild bird that has flown into a house and can’t find its way out. Every time Spurs break, they do so with such authority and sheer pace that the centre of Arsenal’s defence vanishes completely vanishes from view. Saha flashes the ball through the Adebayor, whose shot is blocked by the legs of Szczęsny, and the ball runs loose to Kyle Walker, and Walker’s shot flies just wide of the post.
This miss, however, is a brief respite for Arsenal, and after thirty-three minutes Luka Modric’s pass through the middle finds Gareth Bale and, as Bale moves in on goal, he tumbles under the challenge of Kieran Gibbs. If there was any contact, it was minimal to say the best, but Bale’s efforts are enough to hoodwink the referee and Emmanuel Adebayor steps up to double the Spurs lead. Once again, though, familiar questions about the organisation of the Arsenal defence have to be asked. For all of these questions, though, Arsenal are better value than this two-goal deficit warrants, and in the final stages of the half Arsenal finally repay the support of the crowd.
It all comes in the space of three blistering, almost bewildering minutes. On forty minutes, a low shot from Robin Van Persie thuds against the base of Friedel’s right-hand post, but Spurs fail to clear and from the resulting cross Baccary Sagna heads Arsenal back into the game. As if suddenly overwhelmed by a decade and a half of inferiority complex, the visiting defence suddenly takes the look of being four individuals that have only just been introduced to each other and, with two minutes of the half left to play, Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s poor clearing header falls to Robin Van Persie, and Van Persie swings a magnificent right foot shot wide of Friedel and in. A draining first half ends with the two sides level and with both sets of supporters having experienced the fullest range of emotions that it is possible to experience within forty-five minutes.
The lord giveth, the lord taketh away, then, and within six minutes of the start of the second half, Arsenal have completed their comeback. They have already started strongly when Thomas Rosicky plays the ball wide to Sagna, who releases the ball back inside for Rosicky to lift the ball over Friedel and in. The Spurs defence, which has only just had its fifteen minutes to recover from the shock of the last minutes of the first half, is already in pieces again. With this goal, Spurs do finally regain a little of their composure, but their defence continues to creak and it only takes seven minutes for Theo Walcott to get free on the right and shoot across Friedel and narrowly wide of the post.
Yet for all the pressure and all the uncertainty over Arsenal’s defence, the third Arsenal goal has the feel of being a match-winner. Yellow cards across the centre of the Spurs midfield have rendered it impotent and, in a complete reversal of the first half, it is Arsenal who look like scoring every time they cross the half-way line. After sixty-four minutes, they extend the lead when Van Persie breaks, spreads the ball cross to Theo Walcott, and Walcott lifts the ball over Friedel for a fourth, and three minutes later the by now non-existent Spurs defence fold again to allow Walcott to add a fifth.
With the fifth goal, should come the effective end of the match. Arsenal’s comeback has been everything that they could ever hoped for – proof, as if it were needed, that the talk of the club’s “woes” has been utterly, hopelessly misplaced. Whereas, most teams at this stage may consider taking their foot off the pedal and conserve a little energy for their next match, one gets the feeling that this, for Arsenal, is now a point of principle. They continue to pour forward when given the opportunity, and the Spurs defence is now reduced to a job of damage limitation.
As the second half proceeds and Harry Redknapp’s face turns a more troubling shade of purple, a once-familiar swagger returns to Arsenal. Players long since dismissed by many of their supporters as “hopeless” – the likes of Theo Walcott and Thomas Rosicky, for example – have rolled back the years this afternoon and given every indication of the reason why Arsene Wenger persists with them in the first place. Spurs, meanwhile, have looked as if a collapse of this sort could be possible for the last few weeks. That it should have come today, however, against the one team that Spurs players should surely be able to motivate themselves to play, however, will renew all of the concerns of those who believe that Harry Redknapp is not tactically adept enough for the England job. Scott Parker, meanwhile, ends his afternoon with a second yellow card.
In the cold light of day, this result means that the gap between Spurs and Arsenal remains at seven points. Spurs’ title challenge – which was always tenuous – has surely ended once and for all with this result, and the question mark that hovers over them is now one of whether their nerve can hold as the season enters its closing stretch. We’ll find out a little more about that when they take on Manchester United at White Hart Lane next weekend. Arsenal, meanwhile, may have exorcised some ghosts this afternoon, although the nature of their performance over the first twenty-five minutes of this afternoon’s match continues to raise question marks over how effective their challenge for a Champions League place may continue to be. Less shambolic defences than the one that Harry Redknapp selected this afternoon would have been unlikely to drop a two-goal lead in such circumstances. This afternoon, however, their season sprang back to life. The question, perhaps, now is that of whether this was the first flush of a new spring or a final, valedictory show of defiance from a generation of players written off by many as not fit for purpose.
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