Bale scores again as Spurs beat Arsenal 2-1

Tottenham confirmed the shift in north London’s balance of power

by beating Arsenal 2-1 in the Premier League on Sunday, opening up

a seven-point gap between the rivals in the fight for Champions

League qualification.

Near-identical goals by Gareth Bale – his 10th in his past eight

games – and fellow winger Aaron Lennon in a three-minute span at

the end of the first half proved decisive for Spurs, whose euphoric

post-match celebrations gave an indication of the psychological

importance of the victory. It left them third with 10 games

remaining.

Per Mertesacker’s 51st-minute header that deflected in off Bale

gave Arsenal hope of a third straight derby comeback from 2-0 down

in a typically absorbing and frantic match at White Hart Lane. But

the visitors couldn’t avoid a costly loss that leaves them fifth,

denting their chances of playing in the Champions League for a 16th

straight season under Arsene Wenger.

”It’s not a big enough margin yet to be completely safe,” said

Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas, whose team is now unbeaten in

12 league matches. ”But what we think is that it can have a direct

effect on their motivation – and on ours, too.”

With Arsenal likely to go without silverware for an eighth

successive season, Wenger has been pinning his hopes on a top-four

finish to salvage something from a miserable campaign. But even

that is in serious doubt now, with Chelsea five points ahead in

fourth place. There is no more room for error – and such is

Arsenal’s fragility, especially in defense, that further setbacks

seem likely between now and the end of the season.

”It’s a massive challenge,” Wenger said. ”I still think it’s

possible and will fight for it, that’s for sure.”

Arsenal came back from a 10-point deficit to Spurs last season

to secure qualification for Europe’s top competition on the final

day, but Wenger had Robin van Persie up front then. And Bale wasn’t

in the kind of scintillating form that is currently earning him

comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Wales winger is virtually carrying Tottenham back into the

Champions League on his own, with his latest strike buttressing his

strong chances of winning English football’s Player of the Year

award. It also ensured he equaled the club record – held jointly by

Robbie Keane, Rafael van der Vaart and Teddy Sheringham – of

scoring in five straight Premier League games.

Playing centrally rather than on the left wing, he had arguably

been having his quietest match of the season up until his goal,

with Arsenal starting the stronger and its oft-criticized defense

looking compact.

It then simply disintegrated.

First, an unchallenged Gylfi Sigurdsson slipped a ball through

for Bale to beat the offside trap in a central position before

finishing with the outside of his left foot past goalkeeper

Wojciech Szczesny. His 20th goal of the season in all competitions

was met with chants of ”He scores when he wants” by the delirious

home fans.

Arsenal’s back line, which has been suspect all season

especially through the middle, hadn’t learned its lesson because

Scott Parker threaded a pass behind the docile Thomas Vermaelen and

Lennon rounded Szczesny to slot into an empty net only 140 seconds

later.

It was extremely disheartening for Wenger, whose team made had

its best start to a big game for some time.

Only a last-gasp tackle by Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen, the

game’s outstanding player, stopped Olivier Giroud from going

through on goal, while the impish Jack Wilshere – playing in a more

attacking role – looked more than capable of picking off

Tottenham’s high defensive line. The team’s movement and passing

had been sharp and crisp but it was all undone in a flash.

”It’s difficult to understand how we lost a game like that,”

Wenger said.

Arsenal came from 2-0 behind to win the last two north London

derbies 5-2, and its fans dared to dream of another comeback when

Mertesacker rose highest to glance in a free kick from Theo

Walcott, the header taking a touch off Bale. Both of Mertesacker’s

goals this season have come against Spurs.

More goals have been scored in north London derbies than in any

other head-to-head rivalries in the Premier League, so it was no

surprise to see them flying in once again.

There should have been more, in Arsenal’s net, but Bale skied

over from close range, Sigurdsson chose to pass rather than shoot

when one-on-one with Szczesny, and then Jermain Defoe – on for the

injured Adebayor – dribbled a shot wide.

Substitute Tomas Rosicky gave Arsenal more urgency in the final

20 minutes but Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris wasn’t seriously

troubled, with Vertonghen and Michael Dawson having mighty games at

center half in front of him.

Such is Tottenham’s form is that the team may yet overtake

second-place Manchester City, which is only two points clear ahead

of Monday’s match at Aston Villa. Finishing fourth and ahead of

Arsenal will be Spurs’ priority, however.

”The difference from last year is that we are on an upward

spiral in terms of confidence and they are on a negative spiral in

terms of results,” Villas-Boas said. ”To come out of that

negative spiral will be very difficult.”

Villas-Boas said Adebayor and Mousa Dembele, who both went off

injured, in the second half should be fit for Thursday’s Europa

League last-16 match against Inter Milan.