Another must-win passes for sad, sorry Arsenal
Tonight the world saw the best of the Premier League, a breathless North London derby thriller between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal that should go down as the highlight of the season. The irony will not be lost on both sets of their fans however, for despite an indisputably great game, the result, a 3-3 draw, did neither team any favors.
For Arsenal, this was a must-win game after Manchester United left the window cracked open slightly with Tuesday's 0-0 draw with Newcastle. The whistle, combined with Chelsea's dominant performance against Birmingham in a 3-1 win, left the Gunners skidding into third, tied on points with their other London rivals, but behind on goal difference.
For Tottenham, clawing for a Champions League slot against a vulnerable Manchester City now sitting two points adrift, it was a remarkable comeback without the joy of triumph and simply ratchets up the pressure on Spurs to achieve to a top four finish.
For both, the result both reaffirmed the spark and élan of each clubs' rightly-vaunted attacks at the same time as it ruthlessly exposed their failings on defense. Once more, Arsenal let a two-goal lead slip from between their fingers, yet another sign that they are an immature and psychically fragile side.
It's hard to express just how magnetic an evening this was. Both teams traded early goals, with Theo Walcott firing home first in the fifth minute only to be matched two minutes later by a superb individual effort from Rafael van der Vaart. Samir Nasri restored the lead when Abou Diaby fed him to fire home and nutmeg defender Michael Dawson, and then Arsenal saw Robin van Persie seemingly cap it when he collected his own shot, well saved by Heurelho Gomes, slamming home with five minutes left in the first half.
But it was Spurs who again showed their steel, just as they had in the first meeting the Emirates. On that day they won; this time they could only get level.
Tom Huddlestone ignited the comeback, finishing superbly off a half-volley right before the break. Spurs then came out after the half and pressed incessantly. Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny foolishly toppled Aaron Lennon to gift van der Vaart the tying goal from the spot with 20 minutes to play, and the men wearing red seemed to know the jig was up.
Indeed, Arsenal surely were hit harder by the final whistle. This latest collapse was the capper on a dismal week that saw them throw away points in virtually the same fashion against Liverpool on Sunday, then were forced to listen to captain Cesc Fabregas excoriate the squad in a withering pre-match press conference where he questioned everything about the team but his own checked-out performance.
Fabregas' words were made that much sharper by the fact that they were true. He questioned the side's commitment to winning, noting that the club had failed to buy reinforcements. He followed that up by throwing his manager, Arsene Wenger, under the bus, saying that if the Frenchman were a coach in Spain, he'd surely be sacked.
To be certain, despite the almost cult-like devotion Wenger has inspired among the Emirates' faithful, patience for his faith in development - at the cost of winning now - has to be nearly exhausted.
Bluntly put, Arsenal's performance over the past six weeks, winning just a single game in the league since late February, has effectively handed Manchester United their 19th top-flight title - although Chelsea may still have something to say about that. It is a massive collapse for a club that once had realistic hopes of winning four titles this season, and their woes can be traced to Szczesny's gifting of the Carling Cup title to Birmingham with a horror gaffe late in that game.
Of course, Spurs are no world-beaters. What they are is entertaining - just thin. Tonight they showed far more grit and character, willing themselves back into the match. A terrific performance out of Aaron Lennon, coming on for the injured Gareth Bale after the break, was exactly the kind of lift Arsenal did not get it from its three ineffective subs - Jack Wilshere, Nicklas Bendtner and Andrei Arshavin.
Credit manager Harry Redknapp, a man who has invested this side with a winning mentality that has to earn him year-end honors. Credit him also for being sly enough to pick up the dynamic van der Vaart in what looks to be one of the great steals of the season from Real Madrid. The Dutchman's vision and guile have far overshadowed his petulance and has put his Dutch teammate, van Persie, far in the shade.
One team seems ascendant, the other on an express elevator heading down. Who would have thought three seasons ago that Spurs would be the best in North London or that Arsenal would face a major overhaul?
And Manchester United? They have to be rubbing their hands in glee. Chelsea now have a more realistic chance of catching the Red Devils, and all the pretty passing in the world cannot change that for sad, sorry Arsenal. For Spurs, a showdown against Manchester City may once again determine their Champions League fate. They must relish it. After all, they won same tie one a year ago.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.