Spurs 2 (Rose 10, Bale 47) Arsenal 1 (Bendtner 85)(Premiership)
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that. Despite being written off on at least three occasions, and facing a quite obscene injury list, we’ve stayed in the title hunt until April 14, not a bad feat by any stretch, but the dream is now over. And with it is our frankly hilarious unbeaten record against Spurs.
It had to end sometime, and thanks to a combination of disciplined defending, and a lack of creativity on our part, it was actually fairly comfortable for them until the latter stages. While they created little, early goals in both halves meant they didn’t need to, and could instead focus on keeping us out. As they defended more and more narrowly, we continued to attempt to thread the ball through the eye of the needle, and repeatedly ran into a brick wall. Even the missing Cesc and Arshavin would have struggled to find the pinpoint pass we needed.
And then, in the final twenty minutes, Van Persie made his return to the side after five months out, and contrary to the suspicion that he might take some time to get back up to speed, he transformed the match, forcing the previously unemployed Gomes into a string of stunning saves that prevented a turnaround of Herculean proportions. A remarkable stop from Van Persie’s volley was followed by another brilliant save to keep out his perfectly placed free kick. Campbell’s header was then tipped on to the bar before Van Persie was again denied from distance.
The difference between the opening seventy minutes and the last twenty could not have been more marked, and makes you wonder what might have been had the Dutchman played a greater role in our season. Even Andy Gray suggested that taking Rooney, Drogba and Torres out of their respective teams would see them come crashing down, so it is all the more impressive that we’ve been in the fight so long.
It is no coincidence that prior to his injury, we were headed towards a century of league goals, a feat we have not come close to since that fateful international friendly.
But we still put ourselves in trouble with some poor defending for both goals. While I don’t believe Almunia was at fault for the first – having decided to punch he did it well, and did not see Rose’s fizzing return – we were opened up too easily to concede the corners in the first place. And for the second, it seemed Sagna was still in the half time dressing room, playing Bale on by a country mile and allowing the easiest of finishes.
In the meantime, we were threatening little. Campbell had an early effort blocked, but the only other time we got behind them in the first half, Kaboul accepted a yellow by deliberately bringing Rosicky down to halt the play. And for much of the second half, we passed and passed in the final third, but could not find a way to penetrate their line.
Rosicky was toiling away but having one of those days when it wasn’t happening for him, Eboue also tried his hardest but more often than not made the wrong decision. Denilson and Diaby struggled, while Nasri showed some sparky moments but could not grab the game by the scruff of the neck as Cesc does. Perhaps it is harsh on him to expect that at this stage.
The most impressive performers, Van Persie apart, were at the back. Clichy was back to his imperious best, running the left flank while mopping up after Silvestre’s mistakes. But the star of the show was Sol Campbell, who was forced to control the defence after Vermaelen went off with a calf injury that may end his season. Even at 35, Sol’s fight shone through, summed up beautifully in the dying moments, when he outpaced Gareth Bale on the wing. Time and time again he won the headers, the tackles and the races, answering the questions raised when he was re-signed back in January.
Frankly, with Gallas and Silvestre likely to leave in the summer, I’d give him another year.
I have to be honest – even before tonight I thought it unlikely that Chelsea would drop enough points to let us back in. But now that the title challenge has come to an end, I’m struck with thoughts of what have have been. If you were asked to select the six outfield players that would be the first names on the teamsheet, you would probably come up with Gallas and Vermaelen at the back, Song and Cesc in the centre, and Arshavin and Van Persie up front. For more than half the game, none of the six were on the field. Only Song and Van Persie are likely to feature again this season.
The injury situation has been ridiculous, which is why I’m going to steer clear of criticising the squad too heavily for failing to bring in a trophy. Wenger had to de-prioritise the FA Cup with the fixture list piling up, we ran into Barcelona in the Champions League, and ultimately, we’ve dropped points in the league that the likes of Van Persie might have saved us from. Our rivals have not had the same problems, and for that reason I’m proud of what they’ve achieved this season.
There will be issues to sort in the summer (mainly at the back), but that is some time away. We still have four games to play.
Speaking of issues, I have a bone to pick with Sky’s Martin Tyler who, seconds after the Spurs fans boomed out a stadium-wide rendition of ‘Sit down you paedophile‘, decided it was a good time to say that the atmosphere was vibrant. No Martin, it wasn’t vibrant, it was poisonous, and when millions of your viewers can clearly hear what is being sung, I suggest that you don’t condone it.
So there we have it – the title race is over (although we can still take second), the unbeaten run against Spurs is over, and you could argue that our season has effectively gone the same way. As for Spurs, they may be celebrating tonight, but they are still outside the top four, so let them have their moment, release their inevitable DVD, and enjoy the Europa League next season. We’ll have bigger fish to fry.