Tottenham must be wary of Arsenal's '08 fall
On Friday, it will be 10 years since one of the most significant 'Sliding Doors' moments of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal career.
What if Eduardo's foot had been out of the ground so that his leg went flying into the air rather than smashing into pieces after Martin Taylor's tackle? What if Gael Clichy had cleared the ball instead of waiting and allowing Stuart Parnaby to close in? What if Mike Dean had spotted Clichy actually got a bit of the ball and not given a penalty that allowed James McFadden to score and Birmingham to earn a 2-2 draw?
It would have been Arsenal's fifth consecutive league win and put them five points clear of Manchester United with 11 games to go. Instead, they went three clear, drew three and lost one of their next four games and finished four points off top spot. They haven't been as close since.
Two weeks after the Birmingham result, they became the first English team to beat AC Milan at the San Siro when they knocked the holders out of the Champions League; both league and European displays were all the more remarkable given how history has judged that team.
The Milan side they defeated had Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka and Filipo Inzaghi; Chelsea, who finished second in the league, had Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba; United had arguably their best team in the Premier League era including Edwin van der Sar, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.
By comparison, Arsenal's starting XI against Birmingham was Manuel Almunia, Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Philippe Senderos, Gael Clichy, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb, Eduardo and Emmanuel Adebayor, with Gilberto Silva, Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner coming off the bench.
In Milan, the team included Emmanuel Eboue and Abou Diaby, with Robin van Persie on the bench and Kolo Toure out injured.
Ten years from now, it seems unlikely that many will look back on the current Tottenham players and view them the same way as the 2008 Arsenal team look with 2018 eyes.
Dele Alli seems destined for greater things than being the next Walcott, while Harry Kane (below) already has four more Premier League goals than Adebayor, yet for all the deserved praise lavished on Spurs in the past few weeks, they are still not even at the level of the Arsenal team of 2008.
They finished third and second in the last two seasons but haven't yet experienced the pressure of being leaders under which Arsenal crumpled a decade ago.
Had Arsene Wenger held on to one or two more of the players who had gone unbeaten four seasons earlier, their experience might have helped them pick up more than the three points they did against Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough in the three games post-Birmingham. That was eight points gone in a league they lost by four.
From the move a new stadium to being every neutral's favourite team, there are either comparisons or coincidences between Spurs of 2018 and Arsenal 2008, but Spurs now need to flourish despite the lack of experience in winning trophies which, ultimately, was what cost that Arsenal group.
Mauricio Pochettino is correct to argue that reaching the last 16 of the Champions League and finishing top four in the Premier League is more difficult than winning the FA Cup - Wenger used to say the same before he started winning FA Cups again - but there must be signs of progress on or off the field if the team is to stay together.
Their performance in Turin was superb and, just as Milan were in 2008, Juventus seem primed to be conquered by a younger, hungrier, faster team; Spurs are favourites to go through when they play in two weeks' time. That in itself creates expectation pressure which, if they can cope with it, will be every bit as significant as reaching the last eight of the Champions League.
Given the runs they put together to even get in the hunt for the league in the past two seasons, it was ridiculous to argue that Spurs "bottled it" but even allowing for them being weaker than their rivals in terms of finances, at some point, a team has to move from showing they can compete at the highest level to winning at the highest level.
If the Arsenal team of a decade ago proved anything, it's that punching above your weight becomes tiring without serious reinforcements.
In the summer of 2008, even with a dreadful goalkeeper and mediocre back four, Arsenal's two significant summer signings were Samir Nasri and Mikael Silvestre.
United spent £30m on Dimitar Berbatov and won the league again, while Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City and spent almost £122m in two transfer windows. From four points behind in 2008, Arsenal were 18 behind in '09, and the closest they have got since is eighth.
Tottenham have finished 11 and seven points behind the champions in the last two seasons, and while City are skewing matters this time, the reality is that Spurs are currently fifth, albeit with a decent run-in that should see them in the Champions League again next year.
As Rooney put it recently, Kane's priorities will soon change from scoring goals to winning trophies, while a few others at White Hart Lane - just as they did at Arsenal - might look at significantly worse players earning significantly more and decide that losing money for the sake of the cause isn't a price worth paying.
Given the breath of fresh air Spurs have been, anyone who loves football will hope that scenario doesn't materialise but, as their bitter rivals showed a decade ago, the time between showing potential and building it into something more meaningful can disappear quickly.
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