Monday 19 February 2018

Wenger dodges Pochettino's high-calibre bullets

Tottenham 2 Arsena l2

Tottenham's Harry Kane battles with Arsenal's Hector Bellerin (left) and Per Mertesacker. Photo: Paul Childs\Action Images
Tottenham's Harry Kane battles with Arsenal's Hector Bellerin (left) and Per Mertesacker. Photo: Paul Childs\Action Images
Harry Kane celebrates with Christian Eriksen (left) after scoring the second goal for Tottenham. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Tottenham's Mousa Dembele in action with Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring the second goal for Arsenal. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images

Michael Calvin

Fiction is fast becoming a redundant art form in this season to end all seasons. No screenplay could capture the intensity of the drama here yesterday. No one has a clue about how this film will end.

Arsenal were cast as feckless aristocrats, too posh to push and too talented to care. Tottenham were ambitious upstarts, unwilling to occupy their place below stairs. So much for stereotypes and convenient assumptions.

Arsène Wenger exhaled deeply as he walked towards the sanctuary of the tunnel at the final whistle. He knew the calibre of the bullet he had dodged as his side, down to 10 men for the last 35 minutes, came from behind to earn a breathless draw. It would have blown his legacy apart.

Arsenal took the lead through Aaron Ramsey, conceded two goals in as many minutes when they were readjusting to the folly of Francis Coquelin's second yellow card, yet had the intestinal fortitude to prevent Spurs going top of the Premier League.

They did so despite a goal of rare quality from Harry Kane.

"Personally, I have never questioned the character of this team" said Wenger, who confirmed he had warned Coquelin at half-time about the potentially calamitous consequences of further rashness.

Despite deeply ingrained fatalism, Spurs fans have now bought into the club's long-term strategy, emotionally and completely. Mauricio Pochettino has moulded a callow, urgent and intelligent group of players, with genuine depth, and still made £6m profit.

Spurs were initially sharper, more urgent, and found their mood best expressed by Moussa Dembélé, who put his finger to his lips to quieten Alexis Sanchez's complaints at a typically tribal tackle close to the touchline, in front of Pochettino. They would have taken the lead in the 26th minute but for a wonderfully athletic save by David Ospina from Eric Lamela, who fashioned a close range effort from Kyle Walker's fierce cross-shot. Three bookings in rapid succession, the last punishing Coquelin's blatant handball, reflected the passions of the afternoon.

Arsenal went ahead six minutes from the interval when the slightest deflection from Eric Dier allowed Danny Welbeck behind Walker on the left. His square pass found Hector Bellerin, whose drive across the box was flicked in with wonderful delicacy and dexterity by Ramsey.

That goal was a shock to the system, since Spurs were out of sight on style points, if not on the electronic scoreboard. They had hunted the ball effectively, rotated it intelligently, and used it eagerly.

Their chance came nine minutes into the second half, when Coquelin went to ground early and scythed down Kane. He understood the magnitude of the error, accepted his fate.

Ospina almost immediately saved left handed from Kane at the far post. Technology decreed the whole of the ball was not over the line, but the instinctive anxiety on the faces of the defenders revealed the magnitude of the reprieve.

It didn't last long. Toby Alderweireld, in space at the far post, showed admirable composure when Lamela's effort fell into his path. He hit the ball low on the half-volley with his left foot to equalise.

Enter Kane, with a goal to match the dramatic impact of Paul Gascoigne's 30-yard free kick against Arsenal in the 1991 FA Cup semi final. Dele Alli hustled Per Mertesacker, backheeling the ball to the England striker, who advanced before bending it, from an improbable angle, into the far corner of the net.

The narrative seemed established, yet, as so often this season, there was one final twist. Bellerin's sublime angled pass found Sanchez 15 minutes from time, and his shot went in, off the right hand of Hugo Lloris, for his first Premier League goal since October 17.

Football, bloody hell, as a certain Scotsman once said. Not a new line, perhaps, but none could be more appropriate.

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