Van der Vaart forces Arsenal to pay penalty for latest slump
Tottenham Hotspur 3 Arsenal 3
If there was a consolation for Arsenal last night then it was that they had played their part in one of the best games of the season but as Wenger's shattered, despondent players walked off the pitch you got the feeling that it might not be enough for them.
This was one of those games that remind you why it is English football is at times so riveting. It is not about the hype or the eye-watering wages or the 24 different camera angles. It is about two teams with everything to play for in the League run-in, a shared inclination to attack and a basic disregard for the usual conservatism that governs high-stakes games. It was marvellous to watch.
"People have seen a great football match," said Harry Redknapp, "so I go home happy." From being 1-0 and then 3-1 down, the Spurs manager could afford to be phlegmatic about a point against the old enemy. For Redknapp there is still the possibility of that fourth Champions League place with his team positioned just two points behind Manchester City, who are in fourth place.
For Wenger it was not so easy to be so positive. He had seen Manchester United toss away two points at Newcastle United 24 hours before and, having been invited to close the gap to the League leaders, Arsenal just could not do it. Wenger's team might have now gone 16 games unbeaten but they are third behind Chelsea and the feeling that they are just drifting, incapable of that defining performance that will ignite their title run-in, was overwhelming once again.
At least they gave it a go. Theo Walcott scored the first goal on just four minutes and Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie scored two more before half-time. Then, as with Sunday's injury-time draw with Liverpool, this Arsenal team demonstrated their capacity to throw away winning positions.
Arsenal's north London neighbours are no longer the benighted poor relations, they too have a spirit and a resolve about them. Last night Luka Modric was exceptional for Tottenham who, even without Gareth Bale, a casualty at half-time, looked good value for their draw and might have won the game in the last 10 minutes.
There were two goals from Rafael van der Vaart, the second a penalty, who was deployed on the right wing in favour of Aaron Lennon and another from Tom Huddlestone. Like Arsenal, Redknapp's side suffered from a defensive frailty at times which just contributed to make the whole thing more exciting.
There were six goals, two Spurs comebacks and glorious, to-hell-with-it, all-out attack. There was a penalty for the home side, a disallowed goal for Van Persie that Wenger said should have stood and two goalkeeping performances that were flawed at times and brilliant at others. There was even a touchline ruck between Wenger and Clive Allen, one of the Spurs staff, who barged the Frenchman aside to retrieve the ball.
Allen's acerbic response to Wenger's complaint was that it had been "a good tackle" but that was about as nasty as it got. It was full-blooded on the pitch but never unpleasant. Jack Wilshere, a second-half substitute, managed to get up the nose of Van der Vaart – something he has developed a habit of doing with opposition players.
An uncertain start from Huddlestone played its part in Arsenal's first goal. He lost the ball and with Michael Dawson drawn out of position, Cesc Fabregas's ball allowed Walcott to gallop clear and slip the ball past Heurelho Gomes. It was a breathtaking start and it set the tone for the night.
Spurs equalised within two minutes. A ball crossed from Vedran Corluka from the right was taken by Van der Vaart towards the near post and buried past Wojciech Szczesny. Arsenal were back in the lead on 11 minutes. The Spurs midfield stood off Nasri as he drifted in from the left, exchanged passes with Abou Diaby and beat Gomes with a shot that the goalkeeper should have reached.
Bale found himself well-marshalled by Bacary Sagna who had a very good first half against the winger. Two collisions with Szczesny late in the first half would eventually see for the midfielder, who was replaced by Lennon at half-time. Redknapp's blithe insistence afterwards that Bale was fine suggests that he feels the PFA Player of the Year should be a little more durable.
With Spurs under pressure Arsenal struck again four minutes from half-time. This was a dreadful mistake from William Gallas who tried to chest down Sagna's cross in his own area. He lost control and Walcott chipped the ball back across the goal. Gomes saved Van Persie's attempt but the striker finished off the rebound.
With Bale limping, Tottenham scored their second. A lack of decisiveness from Arsenal in defending a corner ended with a half-hearted clearance from Fabregas that fell to Huddlestone on the edge of the area. He hit a clever shot, stunning the ball rather than striking through it, but it caught out Szczesny.
There was an appeal for a penalty from Spurs just before half-time when Johan Djourou stepped across Modric but even Redknapp was half-hearted about it. At half-time the Spurs manager brought on Lennon, to play on the left, and Younes Kaboul, the latter on for Corluka who had been exposed down the right.
Modric took control of the early stages of the second half and Arsenal retreated. It was Lennon who tipped the balance. Benoît Assou-Ekotto played a pass inside Sagna and when Lennon and Szczesny reached the ball in the Arsenal area it was Lennon who got there fractionally early. He tumbled over the goalkeeper and there was no doubt about the penalty, which Van der Vaart tucked away with the minimum of fuss.
The closing stages were all Tottenham: Peter Crouch, Van der Vaart and Sandro all had chances to win the game. If this is the end of Arsenal's title challenge then it was a great way to go.
Man of the match Modric.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).
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