Sunday 18 March 2018

Anything possible as Redknapp and Spurs awake to new reality

Arsenal 2 Spurs 3

Arsenal and Tottenham players shake hands before the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal and Tottenham players shake hands before the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium. Photo: Getty Images

When Rafael van der Vaart enthused about life under Harry Redknapp last week some saw it as a disguised barb.

Van der Vaart said working for Jose Mourinho involved too many "boring" tactical meetings. Redknapp was different. There was a chalkboard in the dressing room but he never used it.

For 45 minutes at the Emirates yesterday, Tottenham played as if they had never met, let alone been briefed. Arsenal were gambolling through the midfield, Cesc Fabregas was in control and, along with Samir Nasri, he seemed to be toying with the Tottenham team.

At the end of the first half, Nasri and Marouane Chamakh casually squandered chances that would have put Arsenal three up. Arsenal were happy enough at half-time leading by two. Redknapp's gross negligence of the tactics board had been exposed. An hour later, he was a genius. Tottenham had won at Arsenal for the first time in 17 years and his side had provided one of the year's most astonishing comebacks.

Redknapp may wait 45 minutes before directing his team but the transformation was remarkable. "It's really not that clever, I should have done that in the first place and I wouldn't have been behind," Redknapp said afterwards, as he reflected on his half-time decision to take Aaron Lennon off and replace him with Jermain Defoe.

The comeback had transformed more than just the game. Redknapp came out of the dressing room afterwards talking about a title challenge, something that would have sounded ridiculous if his side had ended the day 10 points behind Arsenal rather than four.

For Arsene Wenger, it was another afternoon of despair. Nearly an hour after the game, he wandered into the Emirates press room and talked up this bad, bad day.

"It is a mystery how we can lose this game," he said, and began to fall back on stats and percentages which would have sounded desperate had they tumbled from a lesser man's mouth. Of course Tottenham had a chance of the title. "Mathematically, 10 teams can win the title," he said, as somebody searched for a saucer of milk for the manager.

Arsenal have now lost three times at the Emirates already this season -- "three times is too many" -- and as Wenger talked, he got to the heart of the problem. "It's mental rather than football. Today we were always in the position where we could win it but we couldn't win it."

Arsenal were also in a position where they appeared to have it won. An insouciant Gareth Bale flick in the opening minutes had suggested that the game would be evenly contested. In a strange way, it never was. Arsenal dominated the first half and then stood aside and allowed Tottenham to control the second.

Arsenal came to believe victory would be easy, perhaps because, for 45 minutes, it was. The opening goal was a demonstration of their class and Tottenham's initial passivity. Fabregas had plenty of time to play the ball forward for Nasri, who had run in from the right and beaten the offside trap. Heurelho Gomes hesitated, making his challenge for the ball with Nasri a 50-50. It ran free behind Gomes but the angle seemed to be too tight. Nasri managed it and Arsenal had the lead.

Fabregas and Nasri were gliding across the pitch and Tottenham, with Luka Modric and Jermaine Jenas unable to compete in central midfield, could do nothing but allow Arsenal through. After 27 minutes, Arsenal were two up. Alan Hutton had gone down with an injury but picked himself up as Arsenal moved forward. He would have been better off where he was. The ball ended up with Andrey Arshavin and Hutton gave him too much room on the wing. Chamakh read his cross, got in front of Younes Kaboul and poked the ball into the goal.

Redknapp's changes at half-time made a difference, but so, too, did the early second-half goal. Defoe flicked the ball into Van der Vaart's path as Spurs counter-attacked. Bale, who had been quiet for most of the first half, ran forward. Van der Vaart weighted the perfect pass, Bale took the perfect first touch and slipped the ball with his left-foot past goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski.

Arsenal claimed that all Spurs did from this point was counter-attack. But Tottenham showed sense. They didn't lose their heads as they chased the equaliser. Arsenal did that. Wenger disputed the free-kick that would lead to Tottenham's penalty but he couldn't dispute the penalty.

Fabregas, as he had against Liverpool last season, threw his arms in front of his face and blocked Van der Vaart's free-kick. This time a penalty was awarded. Van der Vaart took it expertly.

Tottenham then played when they could. Modric's influence grew, Van der Vaart was a threat and Bale was kicked around by Arsenal, an indication of the fear he caused.

"You don't need to have a team of hammer-throwers, you have to have people who can play," Redknapp said afterwards, and his side have those.

Arsenal still had chances, Sebastien Squillaci heading over and Fabregas drawing a save from Gomes.

Bale was now free on the left and Spurs could have had the lead if Van der Vaart had been able to get the ball under control when Fabianski fumbled a Bale cross.

Five minutes from the end, Squillaci was booked for a late and heavy tackle on Bale, but there would be further punishment for Arsenal. Van der Vaart delivered a vicious free-kick, the outstanding Kaboul rose to head it and the ball flew into the corner of the goal. With five minutes of injury-time, Arsenal had time to find an equaliser. They couldn't. Redknapp was thinking of more improbable acts.

"I think we've closed the gap," he said. "The league is wide open. Why should we be fearful? Chelsea are not as good as they were. Man United are not the force they were. That pair used to be invincible. Who said you can't win the championship?"

Yesterday, anything seemed possible.

Sunday Independent

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