Thursday 22 February 2018

Spurs kick on to compound Wenger's woes

Tottenham 2
Arsenal 1

Sam Wallace

there was a time when this result in the north London derby would have represented a seismic shift of balance, or failing that a massive fluke, but not any longer.

After a generation of being subordinate to their local rivals, Tottenham Hotspur under Harry Redknapp are liberating themselves from the yoke of Arsenal's dominance, to the extent that they no longer celebrate derby victories like some kind of independence day.

Certainly, they lapped up victory at White Hart Lane yesterday, but it is becoming commonplace: this made it three wins and a draw for Spurs in their last four league meetings with Arsenal.

In the greatest years of Arsene Wenger's reign at Arsenal, Tottenham were an irrelevance to their rival's ambitions of league titles and Champions League football. As it stands today, Spurs are nine places ahead of them in the Premier League and have the kind of depth and experience in their squad that makes them credible challengers for a Champions League place. No one, not even Wenger, is quite sure what Arsenal's feasible targets are this season.

Before they had succumbed to Kyle Walker's winning goal yesterday, the Arsenal fans sang, "What's it like on Channel Five?" to the home support, in recognition of Spurs' downgrading to the Europa League. Yet, by the end, even their former striker Alan Smith, a pundit on Sky Sports, had reluctantly proclaimed that he could not see how Arsenal could preserve their record of 15 consecutive seasons in the Champions League.

It is not as if Arsenal were in a desperate state and, at times in the first half and after Aaron Ramsey's equaliser on 52 minutes, they looked like a side who might just match Spurs. But, increasingly, it is Redknapp's team who have the experience and quality to carry them through the difficult times and see out difficult matches.

Wenger left White Hart Lane cursing Rafael van der Vaart's equaliser, which he claimed was a handball, but, even on the replays, that was by no means definitive. The Dutch striker controlled Emmanuel Adebayor's cross high on his chest near his shoulder to bring the ball down and score. Had he been booked for a deliberate handball it would have been his second yellow of the game.

The pain just keeps coming for Arsenal. The winner was a shot from Walker that Wojciech Szczesny should have saved but the ball dipped and swerved in front of him. Earlier, Bacary Sagna had fallen awkwardly after a challenge from Benoit Assou-Ekotto and turned his ankle. He was taken straight to hospital and Wenger proclaimed himself "very worried" about the prospect the right-back had broken his ankle.

The uncomfortable truth is that too many of Wenger's players simply did not exert enough influence on the game, starting with Robin van Persie and extending to the ineffectual Theo Walcott and Gervinho. Redknapp admitted his team found themselves out-numbered in midfield in the first half and that he toyed with the idea of changing it, but his side came good eventually in a manner that just seems beyond Arsenal in these big games.

In the first half, Walcott and then Gervinho missed chances, the second of which, from a cutback from Van Persie, was an atrocious effort that did not even hit the target.

Asked afterward whether he thought his team could still win the title, Wenger said it was now about "realistic targets".

As for Spurs, that opening defeat to Manchester City feels like a distant memory as they rise to sixth place, with fourth in their sights if they can win their game in hand.

Their first goal was a sweet, flowing move from Luka Modric to Van der Vaart, to Jermain Defoe and out to Adebayor before the ball was crossed back to Van der Vaart to score at the back post. Neither Sagna nor Per Mertesacker put in a credible challenge.

The Dutch playmaker was less impressive when tasked with tracking Alex Song's run around the right flank of the Spurs' defence. His cross to the near post was steered past Brad Friedel by Ramsey and, for a while, it looked like Arsenal might hold on for a point. Szczesny made an excellent one-handed save from Adebayor when the striker went through on goal.

Walker's winning goal came from a shot straight at Szczesny. Somehow the 'keeper failed to bring the shot under control and it was past him.

By the end, there was a familiar despair etched on Wenger's face and his frustration seemed to be as much about his own team as it was about any perceived injustices. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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