Cesc Fabregas and Manuel Almunia had dinner with Juande Ramos last week. But before anyone cries foul over illegal tapping-up, or maybe that should be tapas-up, it was at an evening organised by the Spanish ambassador for players and coaches from the country.
"He seems very motivated by the project at Spurs," Fabregas, who was at the same table as Ramos, said politely of the former Seville coach who could, in turn, probably have predicted that his two compatriots would play decisive roles in this derby. Ramos has certainly motivated the Tottenham players. Shorn of nine first-team regulars, and with just one first-choice defender, they played with a purpose, organisation and, at times, courage which may just end up embarrassing his predecessor, Martin Jol.
But, as Arsne Wenger may say, plus a change. Or as Ramos himself could put it, es el mismo perro con diferente collar (nothing has really changed) as Spurs duly failed to beat Arsenal (for the 20th successive game), failed to beat a top-four team away from home (for the 58th successive game), and Emmanuel Adebayor scored against them (six goals in five meetings).
And while on the subject of statistics, here is another: for the past three seasons the team on top at Christmas has won the Premier League. "If that is right, let's go straight to the end of the season and give us the title," Wenger said. Not that he was placing any store in it. "It's too tight," the Arsenal manager added of the title race. "For the last few seasons it was only Chelsea or Manchester United, but this time there are more teams in it. I will give everything to make it [the statistic] respected, but it's not an insurance."
He is right to be circumspect. As he reviewed the tape of this match, before watching the Milan derby, to run the rule over Arsenal's next Champions League opponents, Wenger would have seen confirmation of his initial assessment: his team were lucky. Had Robbie Keane not volleyed against the crossbar, missing what Wenger termed "a sitter", and then compounded that with missing a penalty, gained by the excellent Dimitar Berbatov, then Ramos would have been toasting Spurs' first victory on Arsenal soil since 1993.
The record books will show otherwise but for 45 minutes Spurs, with the 21-year-old midfielder Jamie O'Hara an impressive debutant, drew Arsenal's sting, to such an extent that it was almost a dead first half apart from two alert saves by Paul Robinson. Then for much of the following 45 minutes they provided the threat. "We came and took the game to Arsenal," Keane claimed. "For long periods we were the better side."
That may be over-egging it. But Spurs did respond magnificently after falling behind to the one moment of quality engineered by Fabregas, who had an unusually disappointing game. He collected Tomas Rosicky's smart pass and back-heeled into Adebayor's path for the striker to side-foot his 10th Premier League goal of the season.
If the home support expected the customary deluge, they were in for a shock. Lennon teed up Keane, only for him to hit the woodwork, before the Irishman cleverly back-heeled to Berbatov and he thrashed a vicious shot inside the near post. "He is a bit like Thierry [Henry], positionally," Wenger said of Berbatov. "He doesn't turn up where you want him to be. Left, right, centre. Frankly, he was outstanding." He was outstanding again when, moments later, he showed wonderful control, provoking a panicky challenge by Kolo Tour to win the penalty. "I guessed," said Almunia, who parried. "Instinct took a big part and luck as well."
It, again, vindicated Wenger's faith. "He came here without a CV so he had to make a name with performances," Wenger said of the goalkeeper. "It is not easy, he had to get experience at a big club. I knew he was good but how can he be Arsenal's keeper? Only by playing. He has never played for a big club before and he made some mistakes, but he has gained confidence and calmness."
And so have Arsenal. They took the cue to win the game with an extraordinary header by the substitute, Nicklas Bendtner, losing his marker, Tom Huddlestone, who ran into Adebayor, and leaping high to plant the ball past Robinson. It was his very first touch. "I said to Vic [Akers], our kit man, to get me on for the corner and I'll score for you," said Bendtner of his first Premier League goal. The Dane has never been short of confidence, and perhaps possesses a bit too much, but there is no doubting his talent.
Spurs fought back and the substitute, Adel Taarabt, could have won a penalty, although Arsenal also had two claims. "I can't remember too many games where we have got three points out of it by playing like that," Wenger admitted. It certainly left Ramos with a bitter aftertaste.
Goals: Adebayor (48) 1-0; Berbatov (66) 1-1; Bendtner (76) 2-1.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Tour, Gallas, Clichy; Ebou (Bendtner, 75), Flamini, Fabregas, Rosicky; Hleb (Gilberto, 82); Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Senderos, Eduardo.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Robinson; Tainio, Chimbonda, Kaboul, Lee (Taarabt, 80); Lennon, Boateng (Huddlestone, 60), O'Hara, Malbranque; Keane (Defoe, 75), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Archibald-Henville.
Booked: Arsenal Gallas; Tottenham Boateng, Berbatov, Tainio.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Man of the match: Berbatov.
Attendance: 60,087.Reuse content