Sunday, February 26, 2012
Arsenal frowns turned upside down
The front page of the match day programme for this always emotive fixture featured the headline 'Time for Heroes' and, belatedly, a handful of Arsene Wenger's players answered the call before a euphoric Emirates Stadium audience.
After the horrors of their thumping defeat against AC Milan in the Champions League and the equally depressing FA Cup exit at Sunderland in the last couple of weeks, this was the first time in more than a decade when Arsenal fans gathered for their annual home battle against Tottenham with pessimism pulsing through their veins.
That Arsenal's recent demise has coincided with an impressive rise for their long-time second rate neighbours has merely heightened the agony for Wenger's wavering disciples and on Sunday they reached a point where yet another defeat would simply not be tolerated.
It was not that Arsenal fans arrived at the Emirates Stadium wanting to see their team lose, in the hope that it would bring some much needed change of direction at their club. No, contemplating a loss against Spurs is not a prospect any true Gooner could contemplate, but many were ready to turn against their team before a ball had been kicked in
this 150th league North London derby.
The mood of pessimism hovering over Wenger was confirmed as he looked to take the sting out of a potential revolt by appealing for the fans to stay behind his team, while Robin van Persie used his programme article to suggest Spurs are ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League because 'they have invested a lot of money in the last few years and
that is reflected in their league position'. A far from subtle hint from the captain that investment is needed to put Arsenal back on track.
When Spurs then cashed in on Arsenal's defensive frailties to storm into a 2-0 lead after 34 frantic minutes, the Arsenal hordes were edging towards a point they have rarely been in Wenger's historic reign as their manager. While not quite in open revolt against their manager and his team, the anger amongst the Emirates choir was rising by the second.
It was not that this Arsenal performance had been as pitiful as those against AC Milan and Sunderland, as Tottenham's early advantage was somewhat fortunate in a first half that had seen the home side dominate possession and have the best of the chances. However, these supporters have had enough hard luck stories to last them a lifetime of late and they didn't want to be patronised by another.
Theo Walcott was on the receiving end of the most vitriolic abuse from the fans around the press box, though Wenger was not alone in escaping on a day when his defence again looked incapable of holding back any kind of tide that flowed in their direction.
Then, just as it seemed life could not get any more unbearable for Arsenal fans apparently facing up to the reality that the Wenger glory days were over for good, their misery came to a most sudden and glorious end.
Within 11 minutes of a game that could have finished off their campaign in miserable fashion, Arsenal scored three thrilling goals, as Bacary Sagna, Van Persie and Tomas Rosicky struck to transform this game and maybe the immediate future of this club and their manager.
Further goals from the previously maligned Walcott gave a disbelieving Arsenal public salvation that seemed out of reach just half an hour before, inspiring Wenger to hail his troops and insist he never lost any faith in their abilities.
"Arsenal is alive more than anyone believed prior to this game," claimed a defiant Wenger. "The drive of the team, the style we wanted to play and everything about this performance was perfect. Despite a bad start, we refused to lose this game and now we can feel it is still possible to finish ahead of Tottenham.
"If you look at our run in the league in recent months, it has not been bad and now we have to try and build on this performance and try to take this level of performance and spirit into our upcoming matches."
This was quite a collapse for a Tottenham side who have looked solid and superb for most of this season and just for once, Redknapp will take some of the blame for their defeat. Even when his side were 2-0 ahead, they were being overrun in midfield and he confirmed as much by throwing Sandro into his midfield at half-time.
Scott Parker may have been player of the season for Spurs, but he was unable to hold his attack-minded side together alone, with Sandro's arrival doing little to end the increasingly painful story for Spurs in the second half.
"I didn't even feel comfortable when we were 2-0 ahead," conceded a downbeat Redknapp, whose misery was completed when Scott Parker was sent off for a second yellow card three minutes from time. "We were getting overrun in midfield and that is why I decided to change the formation and put Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart on at half-time, but they had all the momentum by then.
"We buckled after they scored their first goal and it's not like us. Now we have to respond to this as we have Manchester United at home next week and it's a massive game for us. We are still well placed to finish third, despite this setback."
One day of glory amid a more widespread landscape of despair does not cure all ills, but after so much heartache, this was a day when Arsenal fans remembered how to smile once again.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie
When Arsenal appeared to be heading towards what would have been a fatal defeat, their captain did all he could to lift them and after two first half near misses, his stunning equaliser paved the way for victory.
WALCOTT WONDER: Was this the day Theo Walcott finally came of age as an Arsenal player? Berated by irate Arsenal fans as he turned in a typically erratic first half display, he left the field to a standing ovation after his two second half goals. "I considered taking him off as the fans were on his back in the first half, but Theo gave the perfect answer," stated Wenger. "I still believe in Theo."
ARSENAL VERDICT: There is a danger that this solitary heroic performance will paper over the cracks that remain in this Arsenal side, but the passion and commitment that has been lacking of late returned in abundance.
TOTTENHAM VERDICT: With a 2-0 lead established, Redknapp's men looked certain to wrap up the third place finish they have craved all season, but they now have to respond positively to this almighty setback.