So it comes to this.
Another North London Derby and another opportunity to claw points back against Manchester United after their draw at Newcastle United.
Getting three points tonight was of paramount importance – second only to beating Spurs and not allowing them to get six league points at our expense.
We beat them 4-1 in the Carling Cup tie here earlier in the season. While both teams did not field full strength sides in that fixture, the attitude and determination our players showed in winning in extra time was quite commendable.
That is the form we needed to replicate last night.
We started with a lineup of Szczesny, Clichy, JD, Kos, Squil, Diaby, Cesc, Song, Theo, Robin, and Samir.
Our bench was Jens, Gibbs, Squil, Jack, Ramsey, Arsh, and Nik. In addition to Al and Denilson, there was no room in the squad for Eboue and Chamakh.
Spurs got us underway to a wall of noise and immediately attacked down the left. Just two minutes in, Modric shot wide from a decent position. Cesc and Theo had already combined when the latter sprinted through the middle, where Cesc picked him out. Theo fired emphatically past Gomes to draw first blood just five minutes in.
Unfortunately, the lead was short lived. Barely a minute later, Spurs were level. Nothing looked on, but Corluka put a great ball in from the right, and Van Der Vaart finished emphatically past Szczesny. We barely had time to enjoy the lead, and we were back level – and looking vulnerable.
Spurs had the better of the play for the next few minutes, as they threatened to go ahead. Crouch first shot wide after a good build up, then Modric picked Diaby’s pocket deep in Spurs’ half and sent Bale away down the left, but we were able to defend it well.
The end-to-end stuff continued as Samir and Robin combined, with the latter forcing a good save out of Gomes. One thing already evident is that our players were determined to shoot on goal and work the goalkeeper. It paid off on 12 minutes, when Diaby and Samir combined on the edge of the Spurs box and the latter blasted past Gomes to restore our lead.
For the next few minutes, we threatened to overrun Spurs and extend our lead. We forced a corner and Robin shot over the bar from another attack. Spurs gradually began to get more possession and started creating chances of their own. Van Der Vaart and Corluka both shot over our bar as their pressure mounted.
Gomes looked shaky, he made a mess of a clearance attempt, although he was eventually able to get the ball clear. He then saved a shot from Robin.
Spurs then ratcheted the pressure up, forcing a couple of corners. An offside flag ended the attack on the second corner. JD then gave the ball away to Pavyluchenko, but the latter could not capitalize. At this point, we were having problems keeping the ball and Spurs were doing most of the attacking.
The pressure continued, as Szczesny saved from Bale, taking the latter out in the process. After being under the cosh much of the past 15-20 minutes, we suddenly extended our lead. We put a ball into the box and Gallas could not clear it, Theo put a peach of a cross in for Robin who forced Gomes into a save. The ball came back to Robin and he lashed it back into the net. 3-1 up with just a few minutes remaining in the half.
We were forewarned, conceding an equalizer just a couple of minutes after opening the scoring.
Yet again, we were quickly cut open and needed Szczesny to save again – cleaning Bale out again, in the process. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Spurs to pull one back, with Huddlestone beating our goalkeeper from 30-plus yards out.
That was as bad a time to concede, with just a minute of regulation remaining in the half. Early in stoppage time, Modric went down in the box and Spurs claimed a penalty, but Atkinson waved the appeals away. Just before the half-time whistle, Clichy earned the game’s first booking for a foul on Van Der Vaart. But we made it to the interval with no further damage.
Harry made two changes at the half, replacing Corluka with Kaboul and Bale with Lennon. Arsene made no changes.
We kicked the second half off and Song was immediately booked for a foul on Modric. Less than a minute later, JD was booked for a foul in on the same player in a dangerous area. Not two full minutes played and two yellows – what was that about a lack of composure?
VDV took the free kick but blasted it high. We went down the other end and forced a quick corner, Gallas having to put the ball behind. Robin sent the ball in, but we couldn’t do anything with it. A Crouch elbow left Sagna down and needing a spell of treatment. We drew a free kick in a good position shortly after, but Samir shot it straight into the wall.
Five minutes into the half, and Arsene made an early (injury enforced) change, brining Jack on for Diaby. The latter claimed an assist on Samir’s goal, but I didn’t think he played particularly well, often careless with the ball. Just a couple of minutes after Jack’s introduction, VDV tried his luck from distance, but Szczesny produced a fine save.
With Jack on, we seemed to have more of an edge and started to win possession in midfield. We drew a couple of free kicks from fouls, but did nothing with them. Robin put the ball in the net, but he had already been whistled for offsides. Replays suggested that he was onside when the ball was played, but this particular call didn’t go our way.
Twenty minutes into the half, Spurs lost the ball and Theo led the counter, playing Cesc in but he couldn’t make it count. Spurs began to increase the pressure on us, as they had done during the middle portion of the first half. The pressure eventually told, as Szczesny brought Lennon down in the box, Atkinson pointed to the spot, and VDV buried it to level the scores again.
We had a couple of chances to score a fourth earlier in the half, but unlike the first half, we stopped shooting, and reverted to our pass-pass-pass mode. Probably a sign of nerves and possibly an emphasis on keeping the ball; what it actually did is invite more Spurs pressure and we inevitably buckled.
With twenty minutes remaining to regain the lead, we almost conceded a fourth, as Szczesny had to block a Modric shot. Cesc tried to lift us, twice forcing Gomes into difficult saves. With ten minutes to go, Theo sloppily gave the ball away, allowing Assou-Ekotto to feed Crouch, who forced Szczesny to tip his header over.
Then Song dithered on a clearance, allowing VDV to rob him and shoot, forcing another Szczesny save. With eight minutes left, Arsene used the last two subs, brining Nik and Arsh on for the Sami and Theo, respectively.
Spurs continued the pressure, with Szczesny by far the busier keeper. Two minutes from time, Jack picked Robin out in the Spurs box, but the latter screwed his shot across the face of goal.
As we entered the first of three (minimum) minutes of stoppage time, we were on the ball, knowing a draw would accomplish little other than denying Spurs six points against us. We had a sniff of goal right at the end of the stoppage time, but Nik and Clichy combined to muff it.
The final whistle went shortly after – and almost certainly the remaining scrap of hope that we could overhaul Man United. As it is, Chelsea beat Birmingham 3-1 to move into second place, ahead of us on goal difference.
So our hangover continues, as we follow the win at Blackpool with two more draws – two more squandered leads.
We are still mathematically in the race – we actually reduced the gap on United by a point (to six) – but this was our game in hand. We are now six behind (and in third place) – with only fifteen remaining points to play for.
That might not even be such a big deal if we were able to consistently pick up more than one point per match. Since mid-February, we have only been able do that once (Bloomfield Road), and that has hurt us more than anything. It has allowed Manchester United to continue to get away with dropping points (as they did at St. James Park) last night, and has allowed the chasing pack to make ground up on us.
For those counting the goals allowed numbers, we are no longer officially the “second best defence in the league”, if you go strictly on that criteria. We are now fourth: seven more conceded than Chelsea, four more than Man City, and two more than Man United. Tonight’s panicked, shaky display – with goals conceded within minutes of scoring our first and third – was further evidence that we struggle in this area when the chips are truly down.
A lot has been made of the supposed “lack of leadership” in our squad. I think we have guys that can lead and are capable of doing so – when we were ripping Spurs to shreds in the first half. We certainly had Cesc, Theo, Samir and Robin all showing the way, taking responsibility and standing up to be counted. Yet, when we had to defend, we were often a shambles.
Watching events tonight, it struck me that what we could have used out there is a veteran with some trophies on his resume, who could have calmed our players down, got them organized, reminding them he had been through the wars, won things and knew exactly how to get through these situations. I think, at the moment, that is one thing we really lack.
Arsene probably viewed Billy Gallas for just such a role a couple of season ago. Gallas certainly has the credentials, but he was such a phony, he lacked the necessary credibility in the end.
That is not to say that we are utterly incapable of doing this – we’re not. We withstood some severe late pressure in the first leg versus Barcelona, and defended well in keeping both Chelsea and Stoke at bay in league home wins. But it seems that once our team’s fragile confidence is dented, we struggle in several areas and it takes us seemingly forever to get over it…
Afterwards, Arsene maintained that the title is not yet over, and that we will fight to the end. He refrained from talking about “mental strength” and focused on the team’s “personality” and “attitude”.
I saw one article which suggested that he blamed fatigue for our relinquishing the lead and having to hang on during the second half; I read his comments a thought he was talking more about the mental blow of conceding such a late penalty/equalizer against Liverpool.
I think we all know that our chances are slim-to-none (and slim just left town), but Arsene is not going to say that openly until it is over – neither would I.
All-in-all, a very disappointing night’s work, from my perspective.
It was a great match for the neutral, but overall frustrating. To me, it feels more like a loss than a draw. I can draw the scant consolation that the Spuddies were not able to claim six league points from us this season. And that while St. Totteringham’s Day did not draw any closer, it did not move any further back either. But really, that is about it.
We had to win this – had to – for several different reasons. We couldn’t, and the manner of losing the points – blowing a two goal lead yet again, and playing scared and tentative when losing our lead looked a possibility – simply highlighted some of the weaknesses and fragilities in our club.
The Reebok on Sunday – at least we get away from London. It seems we do better outside the capital then at home, these days. Hopefully the guys can pick themselves up and get a win.
I will try and stay positive and encouraging, but at this moment, I have no words of encouragement to offer.
I am sure you understand…
Written by Oliver