Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal: A Rosy-Fingered Dawn

The vehicles, the helmeted cavalry and heckled infantry of the police had been patrolling the Seven Sisters Road all afternoon. Scarves and singing and Stella-drinking were rife, summer heat had arrived, and it was derby day. Derby night.

The Spurs team-sheet raised thousands of eye-brows inside the stadium but Redknapp's brave decision to start the promising, untested commodity, Danny Rose, as an inverse-winger on the right, paid off. In the tenth minute a haphazard Almunia punched feebly at a Gareth Bale corner, and the ball fell day-dreamingly to Rose on the volley, twenty five yards from goal.
Bosch. Roofed. 1-0. The England Under-21 international is a bright prospect; a winger who can also play at full-back, Rose is fast, powerful, and gifted with a sweet left-foot as well as lambent ball-control. At half-time, having put in his shift, he was sensibly substituted. Although Rose contributed to Spurs's best football in the first half and tracked back and tackled hard, Bentley's experience would prove invaluable in closing out the game. So would Eidur Gudjhonsen's, who, in his first North London derby, looked as if he'd been playing in this fixture for over a decade.

Spurs had barely begun celebrating when Arsenal restarted, and the visitors began to pass the ball with characteristic pace and precision. But for all their ostensibly pretty play in midfield, Arsenal's football was far from penetrating. Indeed their best chances of the game were set-piece derived; Campbell's physical threat in the box was significant, and the sensational Robin Van Persie's overhead effort and close-range free-kick had Tottenham fans biting their bitten nails. The outnumbered Modric and Huddlestone were resiliant, desperate to retain possession, and typically cultured when they had won back the ball. I'm not sure what more Tom Huddlestone can do to book a place at the World Cup. The undertalked pass-master has been better than the inconsistent Michael Carrick this season, is blessed by a greater range of passing, a more powerful right-foot and a bigger presence in the middle of the park. He even made Gareth Barry look ordinary when Spurs beat Man City 3-0 at White Hart Lane in December. Heaven knows the praises pundits would be singing, if Huddlestone was at a 'top-four' club.

After the Barcelona and Portsmouth defeats, this was a match that would be decided by character as well as class, even if Arsenal had an extra four days to prepare, having not played 120 minutes on that cruel Wembley turf. The second goal symbolised the difference in mentality between the two teams. 1-0 up, Spurs wanted to put the game beyond Arsenal's reach from the first whistle after the break. So in the forty-seventh minute, the most improved wide-player in the Premiership this season popped up with his first goal of the campaign. Threaded through delectably by Defoe - a promising omen for Rooney and England - Bale slotted home cooly under pressure, the ball sliding past Almunia's diving left-arm and kissing the inside of the Paxton Road net. In the last few minutes, Bendtner gave the visitors hope after Walcott's dismal performance was atoned briefly by a neat assist for the outstretching Dane, who has an increasingly impressive record against Spurs. But it was more consolation than hope, as Spurs eased to victory in four minutes of uneventful injury time. The second half was not without its scares: the introduction of Van Persie was exactly what the Arsenal doctor ordered (that, and some dodgy lasagne), and his brilliance was bettered only by Tottenham's world-class shot-stopper, diving to his uppermost, rightmost, to claw out two sumptuous RVP strikes.

The "archetype of forsaken loyalty in the modern game", Sol Campbell was justifiably abused for the duration of the match, an abuse politely and healthily tempered to booing. However the former England international riposted with a brilliant performance, and - worryingly for the future of Arsenal FC - was their best player on the night. Dominating in the air or intercepting on the ground, Campbell helped to prevent his (beloved?) club scoring another 1-5 defeat. However it was Michael Dawson and Ledley King who looked the strongest stoppers, aided admirably by sinewy full-backs, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Younes Kaboul. Dawson has to go to the World Cup, especially if Capello is considering taking West Ham's pedestrian Matthew Upson or the inexperienced Shawcross. With Gallas out for Arsenal, and Woodgate out for Spurs, Mikael Silvestre and Sebastien Bassong were waiting in the wings. No doubt Wenger will wish he could have swapped his substitutes for Redknapp's. When Vermaelen was forced off with the score at 1-0, and the fourth official displayed Silvestre's number, Arsenal's nightmare was beginning to take shape. It just isn't a title-winning squad Wenger has built.

Credit must go to Harry Redknapp for tactically outsmarting Arsene Wenger, though no doubt he'll be crediting himself anyway in his forthcoming interviews. The result reflected the quality on the squad sheets. On paper - and now on the pitch - Spurs are simply better than a Fabregas-depleted Arsenal. And their captain Barca-bound, the Gunners should get used to it. "A new dawn" is a dangerous expression, but trophy-less now for five seasons, Arsenal are a club in decline. St Totteringham's Day, unbeaten records and French superstars are celebrative things of the past, and oh-so-quiet throughout the game, this must have been what the Arsenal "
faithful" were pondering. But there are no serious predictions here: this is not an exit for earnest fans detached from the reality of their sport. The title-race hasn't been decided, the race for fourth is still on, and let's hope this fascinating domestic season continues to surprise, twisting and turning like a leg trapped in Wembley soil.

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