Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1
The task of finishing above Arsenal has proven too much for the eight managers who have tried and failed in the 18 years since Gerry Francis last achieved the feat in 1995.
Now, though, that sequence of failure appears set to end after Andre Villas-Boas marked the first anniversary of his last game in charge of Chelsea with a victory in the North London derby that felt enormously significant for both clubs.
Tottenham triumphed thanks to incisive finishes from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon inside two minutes shortly before half-time and were helped greatly by inept Arsenal defending.
Then, when Per Mertesacker, brought Arsenal back into the game five minutes after the restart, they showed the resilience and backbone Spurs sides have lacked on too many occasions in the past to hold on to a win that moved them up to third, two points behind Manchester City and, perhaps more importantly, seven points clear of Arsene Wenger’s side who lie fifth. Villas-Boas attempted to inject a note of caution after the game, offering a reminder Arsenal overhauled a similar deficit last season.
“It’s not a big margin yet for us to be completely safe, but it can have a direct effect on their motivation as well as ours,” he said.
Michael Dawson, outstanding in the centre of Tottenham’s defence, was less guarded: “It’s massive. To get three points in the north London derby is massive.”
That’s certainly how it felt and, after a day that had begun with reports that an unnamed middle east consortium was planning a £1.5b bid for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger was left with more uncertainty after the final whistle.
“It will be a massive challenge for us to get into the top four now,” conceded the manager.
Wenger made no attempt to diminish the importance of this game before kick-off, insisting the prospect of maintaining their hopes of playing in the Champions League next season would provide sufficient incentive for his players. The opening exchanges appeared to confirm the manager’s viewpoint.
While Tottenham struggled to establish themselves in a frenzied start, the visitors managed to inject a degree of composure with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere in particular finding sufficient time and space to provide Olivier Giroud with excellent service and had the France striker displayed sharper reactions, the early Arsenal pressure might have brought a breakthrough. The visitors’ midfield was more compact, crowding the central areas, denying the home side the opportunity to release Bale and allow him to expose the lack of pace at the heart of the Arsenal defence. That situation, however, was never likely to last long.
A warning came in the 21st minute when Gylfi Sigurdsson’s through ball from the left proved to be just too heavy for Bale to collect behind the centre backs. Sixteen minutes later, though, the Icelander got it just right and once confronted with open grass between himself and Wojciech Szczesny, Bale was unlikely to squander the opportunity.
Arsenal’s promising start had counted for nothing and two minutes later, their prospects were in danger of turning to dust when Spurs added a second. Painfully for Wenger and his players, the goal arose in almost identical fashion, highlighting a fundamental weakness in the Gunners’ back-four, reinforced by their failure to learn from the earlier mistake. This time Parker provided the assist and Lennon mirrored Bale’s calm, rounding Szczesny before slotting the ball home left-footed.
In two minutes Arsenal’s swagger had gone and the finger of blame was pointing firmly at the back four, although the lack of cover further forward was also culpable. Now it was a case of finding the resolve that has been too often absent this season and it was to their credit they responded positively, halving the deficit within five minute of the restart with Mertesacker making amends for his earlier mistakes. A floated Theo Walcott free kick was headed on by the Germany defender at the near post and the ball deflected into the goal off Bale.
The game was perfectly poised and with both sides trading blows, any outcome seemed possible. Ultimately though, both teams stood firm and the mood of Tottenham players, celebrating bare-chested in front of the home supporters at the final whistle, was in stark contrast to Wenger’s forlorn side.
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