IT was at West Ham that Harry Redknapp earned the nickname ‘Houdini’ but Tottenham’s new manager has clearly not mislaid his box of tricks.
An astonishing late comeback — one of the most unlikely of this or any other season — maintained the buzz engendered by Redknapp’s appointment at White Hart Lane and left Arsenal feeling as if they had been trampled by an elephant.
“Amazing,” was Redknapp’s verdict but that hardly begins to do justice to the kind of match that leaves supporters in need of a lie-down.
Having forged ahead early on through David Bentley’s magnificent goal, Spurs’ notoriously brittle defence was overwhelmed as Mikael Silvestre, William Gallas and Emmanuel Adebayor all helped themselves to goals. The visitors’ hope flared again when Darren Bent reduced the deficit but the game looked dead when Robin van Persie smashed in a fourth.
Then came the revival that will live long in the memory. Jermaine Jenas spread ripples of panic with a beautifully-taken goal and those ripples became a tsunami when Luka Modric’s shot struck the post and Aaron Lennon crunched in from close range. The Emirates’ away section, half-empty before Jenas’ strike, almost burst asunder in excitement.
Football has few surprises left to spring on Redknapp after a 23-year managerial career, but this was a new experience.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a comeback as late as that,” he wondered, barely suppressing a chuckle. “I just think the players had to believe in themselves — they’re good players.
“I don’t know what happened before but I’ve brought a few back into the squad who had been training with the kids because I don’t think that’s right. I’m a big believer in confidence and you saw that in the comeback.”
While Redknapp positively bounded from the touchline at the final whistle, Arsene Wenger looked as if the blood had been drained from his body. Arsenal might have ensured Spurs’ wait for a win on their turf had been extended into a 17th year but this result felt like a defeat.
Wenger preferred to focus on the positives, perhaps inevitably given this was the kind of match which must appeal to one of the game’s great aesthetes, but his explanation of Arsenal’s late capitulation bordered on the bizarre. The Frenchman insisted his players were vastly “superior” to Spurs, became too negative when 4-2 up, despite pouring forward in numbers and leaving gaping holes in midfield, and then offered a puzzling assessment of his squad’s mental state.
“I feel it was down a little bit to a lack of maturity, but the immaturity is not necessarily linked to experience,” he said. “They will learn from their mistakes and I believe that’s part of life.”
Even so, Wenger’s fear that his side’s development will come too late to pose a title challenge this season must be mushrooming by the week. They were superb for long spells here, shrugging off the impact of Bentley’s opening goal — volleyed in marvellously from 40 yards after Manuel Almunia strayed six yards off his line — to romp ahead.
Not for the first time, set-pieces proved Spurs’ downfall. In the 37th minute, Van Persie swung in an inviting corner and Silvestre flicked in at the near post as goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes flapped haplessly.
Within seconds of the restart, Spurs erred again, Van Persie’s free-kick from tight against the right touchline finding the unmarked Gallas, who thumped in a firm downward header.
The visitors’ confidence appeared splintered beyond repair. Adebayor should have extended the lead only to volley wide when well placed but the reprieve was temporary: after Denilson’s delicious pass released Samir Nasri, the French winger clipped a shot over Gomes and Adebayor bundled into the net.
Even when Bent halved the arrears by slamming in after Almunia spilled Tom Huddlestone’s long-range shot, a comeback looked impossible. Within seconds, Adebayor tore downfield and squared to van Persie, who smashed in at the far post.
The Spurs fans began to trickle away as Arsenal toyed with their opponents and — crucially — missed chances through Van Persie and Adebayor. Then came five minutes of madness: first Jenas sprinted into enemy territory and curled beautifully into the top corner; then Lennon, on as a substitute, slammed in to complete the drama.
Liverpool are next for Redknapp, and with his players anything is possible. “I feel like Superman, I could fly home,” Bentley chirruped in the aftermath. He was not alone.
* €1.38m was laid on Arsenal at the price of 1/100 on Betfair when they led 4-2 last night.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Almunia, Sagna, Gallas , Silvestre , Clichy, Walcott (Eboue 75), Fabregas, Denilson, Nasri (Song 88), Adebayor, van Persie (Diaby 82).
TOTTENHAM (4-4-1-1): Gomes, Hutton (Gunter 80), Corluka, Woodgate, Assou-Ekotto, Bentley, Huddlestone, Jenas, Bale (Lennon 55), Modric, Pavlyuchenko (Bent 65).
Referee: M Atkinson.
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