Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Diary Of A Pessimistic Arsenal Fan - North London Heavyweights Punch Each Other To A Standstill

By Shane Thomas


The most thrilling display of attacking football seen in Britain this season resulted in the 148th North London derby ending in a 3-3 draw. A coruscating encounter at White Hart Lane had the watching fans - both a worldwide television audience as well as those in the ground - breathless. With a win needed by both teams, Arsenal & Tottenham went onto the pitch with one thought - attack.

It was like watching two heavyweight fighters pull out their best shots and try to leave their opponent on the canvas. Much like the infamous war between boxers Marvin Hagler & Thomas Hearns in Vegas in 1985, the two sides decided that attack was the best form of defence. And with neither side willing to put the handbreak on, a demolition derby enveloped in N17.

In such a game, both sets of players shone. For every bit of brilliance from Cesc Fabregas, it was matched by Luka Modric. Samir Nasri's incisiveness was equalled by Rafael Van Der Vaart, while the searing pace of Theo Walcott was as much a threat as the liveliness of Aaron Lennon in the second half.

The tone was set three minutes in when Walcott gave Arsenal the lead after a delightful pass from Fabregas. But Van Der Vaart equalised within ninety seconds as he beat Wojech Szczesny on his near post. If the Arsenal keeper was disappointed with that, Spurs fans could also look at Hereulho Gomes as he was beaten by a long range Samir Nasri effort on 11 minutes.

Fabregas & Modric both took it in turns to prompt attacks as the half progressed. With the pace unrelenting and the crowd shouting themselves hoarse, it was remarkable how anyone managed to keep a cool head in such a red hot atmosphere.

Which was something that William Gallas failed to do as he tried to chest a Bacary Sagna cross back to Gomes rather than clearing his lines. With Walcott first to react to the loose ball, he showed strong presence of mind to lift the ball onto the head of Robin Van Persie, who scored at the second attempt after Gomes made a clawing save to keep the Dutchman's header out.

With five minutes of a breakneck half remaining, it was paramount that Arsenal got to half-time with their two goal advantage. The fact that they didn't surprised no-one. Peter Crouch (who was a menace all evening) won yet another header in the penalty area, and as Fabregas scuffed his clearance, Tom Huddlestone showed the Arsenal skipper how to get a good connection on the ball, as his half-volley whizzed through a crowd of players and found the corner of the net as if fired from an assassin's rifle.

The pace & commitment remained the same, but where Arsenal showed a sharper edge in possession in the first period, it looked as if they had been blunted by the toils of the opening 45 minutes. They still threatened on occasion but Spurs changed their formation to match the Gunners and now Modric & Van Der Vaart looked increasingly dangerous. Lennon also came on for Gareth Bale, and Sagna found him more difficult to deal with than he had the Welshman.

However, as Spurs pressed for another equaliser, they left the back door swinging open. Van Persie scored but was incorrectly given offside, he then elected to shoot when a pass to Walcott would have given the England man a tap-in. Walcott also dallied in the penalty area after bursting clear of the Tottenham defence.

But these moments were interspersed with the home side's dominance. And Arsene Wenger looked as if he knew that his team would need a fourth goal to win. They failed to get it and Tottenham claimed the share of the spoils that their performance deserved. Lennon took advantage of an uncharacteristic loss of concentration from Sagna to race clear on goal. Szczesny tried to cover his right-back but only succeeded in bringing the winger down. Martin Atkinson - who had a fine game - pointed to the penalty spot and Van Der Vaart sent Szczesny the wrong way to make it 3-3 with fifteen minutes left.

The drama didn't end there, as Szczesny atoned for conceding the penalty by making fine saves to deny both Modric & Crouch, while Gomes also made a telling contribution by keeping out a fierce drive from Fabregas. While a point doesn't help either side much, the reaction from both fans was largely positive as they knew that their teams had given everything, and that they'd just watched a truly memorable game of football.

To be honest, things such as the title race, finishing in the Champions League qualification places, and local rivalries seem to matter little right now. Not after watching two clubs giving everything in the pursuit of victory, often finding the best of themselves, and leaving their audience rapt throughout. In what amounted to a footballing slugfest, it seems only fair and right that the North London derby ended with both teams punching themselves to an exhilarating standstill.

ARSENAL (4-2-3-1)

Szczesny - 7, Sagna - 7, Djourou - 6, Koscielny - 7, Clichy - 7, Diaby - 6 (Wilshere - 6), Song - 7, Walcott - 7 (Bendtner - 6), Fabregas - 8, Nasri - 7 (Arshavin - 6), Van Persie - 6

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