VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS: Arsenal’s season all but over after loss to bitter rivals
By Jonny Payne.
Arsenal fans trudged home to the red side of North London last night knowing in their hearts that a disappointing defeat, the first in the league for 11 years to Tottenham, signalled another trophyless season.
The fat lady could not wait any longer. After being stifled twice already this season she finally tipped her head back and opened her vocal chords letting fly in, of all places, the home of the enemy.
Arsenal had twice been written off this season but hauled themselves back into the title race admirably, but it proved to be a step too far for an injury ravaged squad.
Goals from Danny Rose and Gareth Bale condemned Arsenal to their seventh defeat of the season, while a late goal by Nicklas Bendtner served merely as a consolation as another great escape failed to materialise.
All talk before kick-off was the long-awaited return of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman, who had been out since November with ankle ligament damage, was not risked from the start but took his place on the bench alongside Theo Walcott.
Arsene Wenger stated before kick-off that without the injury to his star striker, Arsenal would be a few more points better off, and therefore be leading the pack.
If Arsenal were to continue their pursuit of the Premier League title they knew only a win would do, conversely Tottenham also needed all three points to keep-up in the four-way race for fourth.
You just have to ask Manchester United about the absence of their star striker Wayne Rooney, to relate to just how important van Persie is to Arsenal.
Arsenal started with a more solid-looking team than that which took on Barcelona last Tuesday. Emmanuel Eboue came in for Walcott on the right with Tomas Rosicky on the left. The midfield trio of Denilson, Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri continued in the absence of Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas. Sol Campbell, meanwhile, replaced Mikael Silvestre at the back to take part in his first North London derby for four years.
It was a bright start by The Gunners with Samir Nasri pulling the strings from midfield, but despite much of the possession for the first ten minutes the team in red failed to create any clear-cut chances.
Arsenal were soon made to pay.
After Vermaelen had blocked a shot by Roman Pavlyuchenko with ten minutes gone, Gareth Bale’s resulting corner was punched clear by Manuel Almunia, but only as far as Premier League debutant Danny Rose 30 yards out. The 19 year-old steadied himself and hit a delicious inch-perfect volley first-time over the Spanish ‘keeper and into the roof of the net.
The game was not going according to plan.
Arsenal had to respond and respond quickly if their season wasn’t to crumble at the very place that would hurt the most.
To make matters worse, Thomas Vermaelen was then forced off with a calf strain. Wenger must be wondering what he has done to deserve his terrible luck with injuries this season. Mikael Silvestre came on to partner Campbell in a central defensive partnership totalling 67 years of age.
In true Arsenal style they did respond, as always with a spell of tantalising possession football. But for some poor control and a scuffed shot by Nicklas Bendtner on the edge of the box in the 27th minute, Arsenal could have equalised. The Dane failed to control Rosicky’s ball on his left and scuffed his effort wide -Van Persie was surely thinking he could have done better.
Tottenham could have extended their lead with five minutes of the first half remaining. Luka Modric was left to race through into the box first by Silvestre and then by Clichy, but Almunia dived bravely at the Croat’s feet.
Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp, replaced the goalscorer Rose with former Arsenal winger David Bentley at half time. Bentley scored an incredible long-range effort against Arsenal last season in the 4-4 draw at the Emirates and he has been impressing again of late.
Tottenham started the second period on the front foot and after only three minutes they had extended their lead. Jermain Defoe shook-off Sol Campbell on the left and played in Gareth Bale who had escaped the attention of a ball-watching Silvestre in the box. The Welshman coolly slotted past Almunia and sent the Spurs fans into raptures.
Arsenal were looking exceedingly shaky and gaping holes started to appear at the back as panic ensued.
The Gunners took a while to get back into the flowing passing that characterised their first half performance and were looking the shadow of the side that had decimated their North London rivals 3-0 earlier in the season.
Walcott, the game-changer against Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final was brought on in place of Bacary Sagna, but the speedy winger was not having much luck against Benoit Assou-Ekoto and Gareth Bale who were doubling the marking to thwart the young Englishman at every opportunity.
Robin van Persie was also introduced with twenty minutes remaining, but by then Tottenham had settled for the two-goal victory and plugged their defence with a wall of white shirts during every attack.
The Dutchman could have made a perfect start. Latching onto a lofted through ball by Diaby, he controlled effortlessly on his chest and hit a typical left-footed snap-shot but Gomes produced a world-class save to turn it wide.
The Brazilian goalkeeper again preserved Tottenham’s two-goal advantage first from a Campbell header and then palming a van Persie free-kick over the bar.
Van Persie was showing he had not lost his exquisite touch and soon set up Walcott on the right. The 21 year-old crossed low for Bendtner in the middle who beat Younes Kaboul to the ball to knock the ball over the line. It was the Dane’s ninth goal in the last 11 games, and with five minutes left Arsenal were soon back in the game.
Memories of last-minute recoveries against Hull and Wolves now sprang to mind, but Tottenham stifled their visitors for the remaining few minutes as Arsenal failed to produce another miraculous escape.
With the season now all but over, questions will be asked as to why Arsenal’s fragile squad was not added to in the January transfer window. Only Wenger will know, but the pressure will now be on the Frenchman to spend some money in the summer and strengthen the areas where obvious flaws still exist.
The truth is Arsenal have shown this season that they are not up to the job when it matters the most.
Take comfort though, there is always next season.
Arsenal Team: Almunia 6, Sagna 6 (Walcott 6), Campbell 7, Vermaelen 6 (Silvestre 6), Denilson 6 (Van Persie 7), Diaby 6, Nasri 7, Eboue 6, Rosicky 7, Bendtner 6
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