Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal served up yet another game of the season contender as they drew 3-3 in the North London Derby at White Hart Lane tonight. With both teams desperate for all three points a draw was the last thing either Arsene Wenger or Harry Redknapp had wanted.
However, the Spurs manager will be the happier as his team fought back from 3-1 down to draw level before dominating the rest of the game with Wojciech Szczesny coming to Arsenal’s rescue as he repelled Tottenham attack after attack.
Going into the game all the pressure was on Arsenal. Arsene Wenger had challenged his team to show some mental fortitude and go and win the game at their fierce rivals’ home. While the Gunners captain, Cesc Fabregas, openly defied his manager, his team and board by questioning the clubs football philosophy.
Many wondered how Arsenal’s players would approach this game, but they needn’t have worried as the Gunners started off like a house on fire.
Two goals from Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri in the first 12 minutes with Rafael van der Vaart replying in between meant the game started off at a frantic pace.
The two teams exchanged exquisite through balls as Fabregas found Walcott in acres of space after the diminutive winger timed his run to perfection before calmly slotting the ball past Gomes to open the scoring. Then Vedran Corluka found Rafael van der Vaart on the edge of the box, the Dutchman’s powerful finish into the bottom corner setting the game up to be the Clásico everyone wanted.
Then, before anyone could even draw breath, Samir Nasri had put the Gunners ahead yet again from just outside the box.
The Gunners went on to dominate midfield and it must be said that Harry Redknapp got his early tactics completely wrong as Arsenal’s midfield triumvirate of Cesc Fabregas, Abou Diaby, and Alex Song dominated and dictated the ebb and flow of the game.
As the half wore on Arsenal exerted their control in midfield by reducing Spurs to pot shots from distance that rarely troubled Szczesny in goal. The Gunners were comfortable and enjoying knocking the ball around in their trademark way.
The third goal came from such a move.
Cesc Fabregas released Sagna down the right; he held the ball up brilliantly and crossed into the box only for Gallas to chest the ball to Walcott. Robin van Persie charged to the back post and was then picked out with a delicate chip, the Dutchman headed goal wards only for Heurelho Gomes to produce a wonderful save when he really had no right to even get to the ball. However, the rebound bounced kindly for the Arsenal No.10 who finished with ease to put his team into an unassailable 3-1 lead…
Arsenal had replied in kind to their captain and manager and had shown the kind of character that champions-elect need to show in the face of adversity.
Except, Spurs hadn’t read the Gunners script…
Mere minutes after Arsenal went 3-1 up and right on the stroke of halftime, Spurs broke down the left, the cross was lazily cleared by Fabregas to Tom Huddlestone who scored a venomous half volley from fully 25 yards to bring Spurs back into the game at 2-3.
The referee then called an end to proceedings as fans from both sides wiped their brows and reminisced about witnessing the best 45 minutes of football in the Premier League this season.
Harry Redknapp was forced to reshuffle at half time as a groggy Gareth Bale, was deemed unfit to take the field of play after colliding with Szczesny towards the end of the first half. He was replaced by Aaron Lennon while Vedran Corluka made way for Younes Kaboul in defence.
With Arsenal dominating the game, particularly in midfield, one would have thought that losing two key players, especially Bale, Spurs would have found the going tough and that the Gunners would have ripped them to pieces as they closed out the game.
The truth was very different indeed.
Rafael van der Vaart showed far more discipline by staying out on the right hand side while Lennon hugged the left hand touchline. By this simple tactic, Sagna and Clichy were both pegged back in their own half, and with that Tom Huddlestone and Luka Modric began to get on top in central midfield.
Spurs were now playing conventional wide men with options opening up to spray the ball and stretch Arsenal’s team. That tactic was employed with a fundamental fervour and all of a sudden, Arsenal’s defenders seemed uncertain of how to combat this new question facing them.
With the Gunners defence and midfield stretched wider than they would have liked, Benoit Assou-Ekotto picked up the ball in an innocuous position at left full and the whole pitch opened up for him. His phenomenal through ball found Sagna flat footed. Lennon did not need a second invitation and he raced clear only for Wojciech Szczesny to pull him down as he tore into the box.
Some referees would have sent the young Pole off for the indiscretion but Martin Atkinson chose to save the ‘keepers blushes and awarded him a lucky yellow.
Rafael van der Vaart stood tall and smashed home his second of the game from the spot to draw the game level and from here Arsenal were obviously on the ropes with Spurs only needing to find the knock out blow to win the game.
But just as Arsenal was reeling and in dire need of showing some real character, their saviour came from the most unlikely of sources. By this stage players like Fabregas, Nasri, Walcott, and Koscielny had all gone missing and Spurs were just rampaging forward. So it was left to Wojciech Szczesny to stand tall, and stand tall he did.
The Arsenal ‘keeper went on to make save after save, most notably from Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric who were both denied by world class saves.
In the end the character shown by Spurs to come back into the game is in direct contrast to the Arsenal’s players who shrank the further the game went on.
Both teams wanted to win tonight, and both teams needed to win. Arsenal had been openly challenged by both their captain and manager to show their character and had failed in spectacular fashion when they needed to show it most.
The questions against this Arsenal side are mounting and this performance will have done them no favours what-so-ever. Their tilt at the title is over once again, as for all intents and purposes are Spurs’ hopes of breaking into the top four.
But as the season draws to a close, Spurs have one thing in reserve that Arsenal does not, optimism.
Tottenham: Gomes, Corluka (Kaboul 46), Gallas, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone, Modric, Bale (Lennon 46), Van der Vaart, Pavlyuchenko (Sandro 78), Crouch.
Subs: Cudicini, Kaboul, Lennon, Defoe, Bassong, Sandro, Pienaar.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy, Song, Walcott (Arshavin 81), Fabregas, Diaby (Wilshire 53), Nasri (Bendtner 81), Van Persie.
Subs: Lehmann, Ramsey, Squillaci, Wilshere, Arshavin, Gibbs, Bendtner.
Referee: Martin Atkinson