Tottenham took a massive stride toward Champions League qualification as a 2-1 victory over Arsenal at White Hart Lane gave them a seven point advantage in the Premier League standings.
When the sides met at a similar stage last season, Tottenham held a 10-point advantage over Arsenal and raced into a 2-0 lead in the match. Spurs grabbed the same advantage here, through first-half goals from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. Unlike the meeting last term, though, Tottenham showed greater composure and resilience and held on for the win, despite Per Mertesacker pulling a goal back from the visitors.
A 5-2 win for Arsene Wenger’s side last season led to a huge momentum shift that saw them overtake Tottenham for the remaining Champions League place, but it would take a most pessimistic Spurs fan and highly optimistic Arsenal supporter to think that something similar could now happen this campaign.
It was the pace of Bale and Lennon that was crucial in exposing Arsenal’s defensive failings in two first-half minutes from which Arsenal could not recover.
Yet for 37 minutes it was Arsenal that were on top. Both sides were keeping high lines, a brave move with so much attacking pace on show. However, it was Arsenal’s tactics that were working the better as they got good pressure on Tottenham high up the pitch and prevented their opponents from playing out of the back.
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The home side’s inability to pressure the ball, meanwhile, left their back line susceptible. Yet Arsenal were only able to exploit that weakness on one occasion and then they failed to take full advantage.
Santi Cazorla got Olivier Giroud behind the Spurs backline with a pinpoint pass, but the Frenchman was unable to escape the attentions of Jan Vertonghen who got back to make a fine saving challenge.
But Arsenal’s strong start was undone by a couple of crazy minutes of defending of the type that has become all too familiar to their fans in recent times.
As soon as Tottenham got good possession up the field, Arsenal’s lack of defensive organization was left desperately wanting. First, Gylfi Sigurdsson ambled forward down the left and, with Thomas Vermaelen stepping up and Per Mertesacker dropping deep, picked out Bale in behind and the Welshman, full of confidence, finished with aplomb with the outside of his left foot.
Within no time at all, Arsenal fell victim to almost an exact replica of the first goal. Having won the ball just inside their own half, Tottenham went forward through Scott Parker, who bided his time before releasing Lennon breaking completely unchecked from the right and the lightning-footed winger easily went past Wojciech Szczesny before sliding the ball into the net.
It appeared that the match had seen a dramatic and likely permanent momentum shift, but seasoned north London derby watchers will have known to take nothing for granted. Sure enough, Arsenal came roaring back after the half-time interval.
Within just six minutes they were right back in the contest. From Theo Walcott’s free-kick delivery wide on the left, Mertesacker got a free jump at the near post and his flicked header got a slight deflection off the head of Bale and just evaded the dive of Hugo Lloris down to his left.
Far from the lack of penalty box action in the opening exchanges, the game had now exploded into life. Lloris’s alertness was the only thing that prevented Carl Jenkinson’s low cross from finding an onrushing Arsenal forward.
At the other end, a similar low ball across the six-yard box, from Benoit Assou-Ekotto, should have been converted by Bale at the back post but on this occasion his finish was found wanting as he skied a side-footed effort over the bar.
With 20 minutes remaining, Tottenham had two quick-fire chances to again make their lead more comfortable. Jermain Defoe’s introduction was the spark as first the forward found Sigurdsson breaking free down the left of the area, but the Icelander overran the ball and could only poke the ball across the box when he should have been finding the back of the net. Just a minute later, Defoe, just back from injury, fired wide when well positioned on the edge of the box.
Despite six minutes of injury time, the closest Arsenal could muster to an equalizer was a long-range Walcott free-kick. Tottenham defended admirably in the closing stages and can now perhaps even contemplate catching Manchester City in second place. Arsenal, meanwhile have five points to make up on Chelsea in the remaining 10 games to avoid their long run of Champions League qualification coming to an end.