This was a masterpiece of a match, a real Clásico, a game that showcased the attacking best and defensive worst of two of London sides but ultimately proving only of benefit to Manchester’s finest.
This was a rollercoaster of a ride, end-to-end drama that left Arsenalsix points behind Manchester United in the race for the Premier League and Tottenham Hotspur two points behind City in the chase for the final Champions League position.
Arsenal’s players left the field looking devastated, again having let a lead slip. Here, before an enthralled Lane crowd, Arsenal let the lead slip twice, again raising questions of their character.
Spurs had to fight back from one down, Rafael van der Vaart equalising Theo Walcott’s opener, and then 3-1 down. Arsenal, playing with pace and confidence, had regained the lead through Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie but back came Spurs. Tom Huddlestone and then a Van der Vaart penalty preyed on Arsenal errors.
Arsène Wenger’s shell-shocked men must now travel to Bolton Wanderers before that key game with United at the Emirates. Arsenal finish with Stoke City (away), Aston Villa (home) and Fulham (away) but it may be all over. The way Wenger walked away, having shaken Harry Redknapp’s hand, indicated a man who realised what a damaging blow this was. He just looked as drained emotionally as his players were physically.
At this stage of the season it is all about which team – which players – hold their nerve. Spurs had emerged seemingly the more relaxed, Peter Crouch cracking a joke with his mascot, yet Arsenal settled the quicker, bossing central midfield.
Arsenal had the numbers in the middle, Abou Diaby and Alex Song supporting Cesc Fabregas. So began a classic, the goal starting early. When Huddlestone hesitated, Fabregas nicked the ball, sweeping it through the middle for Walcott to beat the offside trap. The England international’s pace carried him swiftly through the centre. As Gomes advanced, Walcott calmly slid the ball to the Brazilian’s left: 0-1.
Arsenal have shown vulnerability when ahead in recent days, as Liverpool proved at the Emirates on Sunday. Vedran Corluka had already made good ground down the right, and did so again, soon clipping a good pass to Van der Vaart on the edge of the Arsenal box. The Dutchman’s response was marvellous, controlling the ball and then drilling it past Wojceich Szczesny: 1-1.
Spurs fans loved it, believing that Arsenal were now there for the taking. Wenger’s men regrouped, believing in their passing principles, sticking together and also strengthened by the muscle of Diaby and Song in the centre. Nasri was excellent, cutting in from the left time after time and creating havoc. Van Persie then darted down the inside-left channel, eluding Gallas but failing to beat Gomes at the near post.
Arsenal were in the mood, particularly Nasri. When Diaby then found Nasri 25 yards out, the Frenchman had only one thought in his head. Nasri let fly, the ball taking a nick off Dawson but Gomes should still have done better: 1-2.
The centre continued to belong to Arsenal. Huddlestone dithered, allowing Walcott another run before Michael Dawson steamed in to clear. A game of relentless speed was briefly scarred by a nasty challenge, Diaby catching Luka Modric awkwardly from behind.
Walcott’s pace was continuing to alarm Spurs. Just before the half-hour mark, the winger sped past Benoît Assou-Ekotto and shot from right to left, the ball just missing at the far post.
Stung by the criticism that has come their way since the Liverpool draw, Arsenal defended with their lives. Van Persie cleared a corner. Sagna slid in to nick the ball from under the flying feet of Roman Pavlyuchenko.
This was breathless stuff, classic entertainment, the Premier League at its adrenalin-filled best. Such was Arsenal’s control in the centre that Pavlyuchenko and Crouch needed to drop back. Arsenal were determination personified. Diaby took the ball off Van der Vaart.
Then came more errors in the Tottenham defence. Gallas was caught out by Sagna’s cross. Spurs’ back four still froze when Walcott lifted the loose ball back across. Gomes saved well from Van Persie’s header but the Dutchman was sharpest to the rebound, driving it into the roof of the net: 1-3.
The drama was relentless. Johan Djourou put his arm across Modric, who fell to the floor as Spurs screamed for a penalty. These were bruising times for Spurs with Bale almost knocked out by Szczesny’s pursuit of the ball. No blame could be attached to the Pole, although he was targeted for derisive chants from the Spurs fans for the rest of the game.
But with Bale receiving attention, Spurs pulled back a goal, Huddlestone firing through a crowd of players: 2-3.
Maybe it was nerves but Arsenal then revealed an indisciplined streak. Gael Clichy clattered Van der Vaart. As the second half began, Song and Djourou were both cautioned for fouling Modric.
Redknapp’s changes, Aaron Lennon for Bale and Younes Kaboul for Corluka, seemed to give Spurs new impetus, yet Arsenal still threatened on the break. Just after the hour-mark, Walcott knocked the ball through Dawson’s legs and accelerated into the box, although he delayed his shot and Spurs escaped.
Big moment? Spurs were soon pushing down the other end, Assou-Ekotto releasing Lennon into the box where he was brought down by Szczesny. Clear penalty, whatever Wenger’s protestations. Van der Vaart was the epitome of composure from 12 yards, sweeping it past Szczesny.
The Pole made partial amends, saving brilliantly from Modric. Gomes was also making up for earlier frailty, pushing away a Fabregas strike.
Wenger went for it, sending on Nicklas Bendtner and Andrei Arshavin. Still Spurs pressed, Crouch and Sandro going close. The nerves were getting shredded until Martin Atkinson blew for full time. It almost sounded like the Last Post on Arsenal’s title campaign.