Give The Ball To Bale And Spurs Will Triumph Over Arsenal
“Even at this time of triumph it is important to remember the verities of cricket between England and Australia. Winning is not what matters; the Ashes are about renewing old friendships in a spirit of sporting endeavour between two nations with a common bond. But, by God, isn't it great to beat the b**tards?” Matthew Engel, 1986.
That was Matthew Engel writing about The Ashes, the wonderful cricketing conflict between England and Australia. His magnificent quote, if you remove the cricketing references, could just about sum up any great sporting rivalry. For all the virtues of fairness, sporting play, camaraderie between opposing sets of fans, nothing quite beats the feeling of relief and sheer delirium of beating your closest, fiercest rivals.
On Sunday afternoon at White Hart Lane, in another instalment one of football’s grandest rivalries, Tottenham Hotspur will take on Arsenal. They may not be fighting for the league title, but they are fighting for a Champions League place and perhaps more than that; they are scrapping it out to finish ahead of one another.
Not since 1995 have Tottenham ended a league season ahead of Arsenal. In that time Spurs have travelled through mind numbing mid-table mediocrity, staggered from crisis to crisis and spent money with the recklessness of drug addicted rock stars. While they desperately struggled just to finish in the top half of the Premiership, their rivals just three miles away were winning league titles, FA Cups and doing so playing glorious football that thrilled neutrals almost as much as it delighted their adoring supporters at Highbury.
As Arsenal hoovered up trophies like Henry Hill hoovering drugs up his nose at the end of Goodfellas, beating Spurs for them was more a pastime than a serious footballing test. Wherever the venue of the match, whatever the competition, Spurs couldn’t beat them and only occasionally earned a draw. It was true stop hitting yourself stuff, culminating in Arsenal clinching the league title at White Hart Lane. The ultimate humiliation.
Since that day in 2004 though, things have changed. Arsenal have regressed, the Invincibles of yesteryear morphing into the Averageables they are today. Spurs rebuilt themselves to the extent they’re currently four points ahead of the team in red and white three miles down the road and will go seven points clear should they win on Sunday.
The game itself has been a treat for the football lover in previous seasons. Spurs-Arsenal matches have seen a glut of goals, the last eight encounters seeing at least three goals every time. In terms of pure football, the North London derby has been comfortably the best in the Premier League, the nerves and tension resulting not in dull stalemates that most derbies become but in dismal defending that’s culminated in goal feasts.
Will Sunday’s match see another goal fest? Frankly, it looks less likely than usual. Spurs’ defence, Monday night excepted when they were unsettled by Andy Carroll’s aerial ability, has been excellent in recent months, conceding less than a goal a game since Hugo Lloris became the regular starter in goal in November. Their attack, sorely missing any sort of striking prowess, has been built around getting the best out of Gareth Bale. The Welsh Wonder has rewarded them with not just goals but sensational, magnificent goals that have won games in dramatic style and dug them out of increasingly big scrapes, his stunning winner against West Ham a prime example.
Arsenal this season have been even more frustrating than usual to watch. A club which is wealthy, in possession of a brand spanking new stadium continue to be mediocre, threaten to move into the top batch of teams before making critical mistakes they’ve made before. The way the likes of Vermaelen, Koscielny, Sagna have got worse the longer they’ve been at the club is a damning indictment of whatever coaching they’re (or rather not) subjected to on the training pitch.
For all their weaknesses though, they are a talented side who refuse to just wilt away and die. Arsene Wenger, for all the kickings he regularly receives from the press, shows an admirable refusal to give up. He’s yet to finish outside the top four with Arsenal, and just as people think that finally he might be able to leave, he elicits another great run of form from his players. The 5-2 thumping of Spurs last season shows the folly of writing him or his team off.
In the match between these two rivals in November, Spurs played at a stonking tempo, pressing Arsenal ferociously and starting the match like a train. They were 1-0 up and threatening to increase the lead when Emmanuel Adebayor, Arsenal’s bête noire, was sent off for a reckless tackle of great stupidity. The pressing game collapsed, the holes in the defence became evident. Arsenal duly won 5-2, matching the scoreline from last February’s match.
This time you’d expect Spurs to be more cautious. The pace of Theo Walcott and the ability of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla to slide through balls in behind the defence will be a big worry, especially as West Ham on Monday night found joy more than once from the Spurs defence being caught too high up the pitch. And Arsenal’s attackers are quicker and slicker than West Ham’s.
Spurs will be reliant again on Gareth Bale going forward, unless Adebayor finds enough loathing inside him for his former employers to put in the sort of strong, tough running performance he’s failed to put in all season. With Aaron Lennon having a quiet spell after an excellent start to the season, Mousa Dembélé looking fatigued and Lewis Holtby promising much but yet to truly deliver since his arrival from Schalke, the attacking burden will again fall on Bale’s shoulders. As mesmeric as he’s been recently, he can’t score brilliant goals every match and will occasionally need some help. Spurs fans will be hoping, for at least this fixture, he can continue to have gold dust in his shooting boots.
Arsenal you’d expect will be looking to use the pace of Walcott going forward. He has an excellent record against Spurs - four goals in his last four appearances against them - and these goals have almost all come from getting in behind the defence and duly tucking the ball into the net. Wenger may well start him at centre forward over Olivier Giroud to try and utilise his pace to the maximum. Santi Cazorla is expected to be out wide, with Wilshere behind the striker and Mikel Arteta next to the improved Aaron Ramsey in the middle. The lack of a true defensive midfielder is a clear weakness Andre Villas-Boas will look to exploit.
Unbeaten in eleven league games, coming off a dramatic victory on Monday night and boasting home advantage, Spurs will enter the game as favourites. But successive 5-2 wins in the fixture will give Arsenal hope. The game is potentially enormous for both teams - a win for Spurs would give them a seven point cushion and a golden opportunity to atone for not qualifying for the Champions League last season, while an Arsenal victory would narrow the gap to a point and with their easier run in make them favourites to clock up another finish in the top four. To the players, coaches and most importantly fans of each club, a victory on Sunday would mean so, so much.