Arsenal's title hopes hang on North London derby result

BY Jamie Trecker • April 19, 2011

Arsenal's title hopes are hanging by a thread as they head to White Hart Lane Wednesday for what is now a critical North London derby clash. It the kind of match that the Gunners certainly don't want to play: A no doubts about it, must-win game against bitter arch rivals Tottenham - exactly the kind of game Arsenal have proven incapable of winning in recent seasons.

In fact, Spurs have won three straight in the league, puncturing the Gunners in November at the Emirates when Rafael van der Vaart led a fightback from 2-0 down to get Spurs a massive 3-2 win. Then, Arsene Wenger said that the loss was a "mystery" that left him "speechless." It was but the first of many "mysteries" that would seize this Arsenal team in the coming months.

Arsenal, who have tailed off badly, now come into this game pointing fingers at everyone but the folks truly to blame: themselves. They looked tepid against a defense-first Liverpool Sunday yet thought they had escaped when Robin van Persie sunk a penalty in stoppage time. But no: Emmanuel Eboue, with a mistake that can best be described as tragicomic, promptly felled Liverpool's Lucas in the opposite penalty area, allowing Dirk Kuyt to level from the spot as time expired.

That moment - and the indelible image of Eboue sinking to his knees in anguish - sums up what has been (in fan's minds) a miserably disappointing season for the Gunners. Once a team with realistic hopes of a quadruple, Arsenal have been undone by a series of ridiculous mistakes both on and off the field. Arsene Wenger refuses to blame his players, but who exactly was it that coughed up the goal to give Birmingham City the Carling Cup, flailed at balls to drop eight points and virtually gift Manchester United the title uncontested, and failed miserably to do the one thing this team is alleged to be good at: scoring goals.

For that matter, while Wenger's carping at referees was played out last year, just who is it that failed to secure central defending, midfield leadership and above all, credible goalkeeping? Fans could argue that no one expected three of Arsenal's four keepers to go down injured. Unfortunately, the argument holds no water. One-time starter Manuel Almunia's foibles sunk Arsenal in the same manner last season, and yet the club made no moves to shore the position up.

Add in that there's no excuse that Arsenal came into the season relying on the likes of Sebastien Squillaci and Johan Djourou in the gut, and shackled themselves to the clearly want-away captain Cesc Fabregas. The two former have done their best with very limited skills; the latter seems to have checked out two months ago despite lots of flowery promises and probably should be sold in the close season.

In contrast, their neighbors thrilled millions around the world with a brilliant Champions League run and can boast of having the Player of the Year in Gareth Bale.

But Tottenham also come into the game with a lot on the line. They must collect wins if they hope to catch Manchester City and seize a berth in next year's Champions League. City currently sit only three points ahead of them in the race, but while Spurs have a game in hand, they are far behind on the goal difference tiebreaker. Spurs also have the tougher run-out, having to face not only Arsenal but Chelsea, Liverpool, and yes, Manchester City before season's end.

Spurs don't have a deep squad, and if they fail to make the Champions League are likely to have to sell some of their best players. They also have goalkeeping issues with Heurelho Gomes the poster boy for gaffes and have been hit hard by defensive injuries. Still, with Rafael van der Vaart, Aaron Lennon, Luka Modric, Peter Crouch and the irrepressible Bale, it's hard not to argue that one London team got the equation right this season. Scrappy overachievers? Maybe. Or maybe they just responded to their coach, Harry Redknapp, who looks like a genuine manager of the year candidate.

Expectations are certainly different - after all, no one thought that cash-poor Spurs would ever compete for the crown - but let's be honest: One North London side won fans this season for it's grit, style and management. The other lost them. Wednesday night, Spurs can put the sword to their old enemy, and many Arsenal fans might think the chop is coming.

Arsenal were thrown the faintest of lifelines Tuesday when an out of sync Manchester United missed a chance to move nine points clear, held to a 0-0 draw by Newcastle.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.

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