Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tottenham 0 -Arsenal 1

After falling out of the Champion's League in midweek, Arsenal faced an always testy derby match at North-London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. This match is always a big one on the schedule, but it's importance this time around was underscored by Arsenal's need to keep pace with Liverpool and take advantage of Chelsea's stumble at Hull City. A victory would keep the Gunners even on points with Liverpool, just four points behind the League-leaders. A loss would pull Tottenham to within three points of Arsenal, creating an undesirable battle for the fourth and final Champion's League spot for next season.

Arsenal's rash of midfield injuries, with Ozil, Ramsey, and Wilshire all sidelined, made the challenge even greater for the Gunners. Despite those injuries, Arsenal could boast a midfield line-up at least the equal of Tottenham's, including the in-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Thomas Rosicky, and Lukas Podolski, along with Mikel Arteta in a more defensive role. Wenger's seemingly prescient January signing of Kim Kallstrom provided further depth on the bench along with the impressive German youngster Serge Gnabry. If Arsenal could afford some injuries in midfield this year, that is definitely not the case in the defense. Fortunately, Kieran Gibbs passed a fitness test and was available to start, ensuring that Arsenal would have a complete set of regular starters at the back.

Arsenal got off to a dream start, thanks to a rocket of a strike by Thomas Rosicky in the second minute. Rosicky received a lay-off from Oxlade-Chamberlain near the top right corner of the penalty box and blasted the ball across the goal keeper and into to the far corner of the net. After that, Tottenham upped their intensity, and Arsenal seemed content to allow Spurs more of the possession, playing with 10 men on their own side of the field, looking for counter-attacking possibilities. It almost worked a treat in the 15th minute, when Oxlade-Chamberlain broke in alone on goal from the halfway line, but made a hash of his attempt to chip it passed the goalkeeper. Gunners should have been up 2-0, and their fans were left wondering whether that miss would prove significant.

Throughout the balance of the first half, the Spurs attacked hard, but always looked fragile on defense. They created a few good chances for themselves, but gave up as many at the other end. Still, Arsenal led by only one goal as the half came to a close, and Tottenham were getting the ball in and around the Arsenal penalty area far too easily and often.

At the start of the second half, it seemed that Arsenal goalie Wojciech Szczesny was trying single-handedly to put Tottenham back in the match. On two occasions within a minute, Szczesny flailed at balls into his area, and had to be bailed-out by goal-saving blocks by his defenders. Tottenham really should have scored, but definitely were growing in confidence that they would score eventually - especially if Szczesny did not get his head into the match. As the announcers said, "they're getting closre and closer."

For a long while, nearly all the traffic was in one direction - toward the Arsenal goal. But virtually everytime a Tottenham player launched a pass into Arsenal's penalty area looking for Adebayor, it seemed the big German defender Per Mertesacker was positioned perfectly to head the ball back out of the area. Throughout the second half, Mertesacker seemed the most poised and commanding player on Arsenal's side. The big man was a giant. I lost count of how many times he headed the ball today - it must have been well into double-figures. So effective was Mertesacker inside the Arsenal penalty area that Adebayor started coming out of the box to receive the ball in a position to instead run at Mertesacker.

As the half wore on, Arsene Wenger sensed that his team were defending more desperately, and inserted Mathieu Flamini into the match in place of the goal-scorer Thomas Rosicky to add a bit more backbone. Ten minutes after that, Wenger brought in another defender Nacho Monreal to replace attacking midfielder Lukas Podolski. Without question, Wenger had decided he was going to try to win the game 1-0. But it was almost 2-0 right after that, as Mertesacker nearly scored off of a set piece. It was against the run of play, but if not for an excellent save by Hugo Lloris, Arsenal would have killed off the match. Ten minutes more went by, and Wenger inserted yet another defender, Thomas Vermaelen. So, Arsenal finished the match with a very unusual back five, supported by two defensive midfielders. Despite that, Adebayor still forced a good save out of Szczesny in the final minutes of regular time.

When the four minutes of stoppage time were finally at the end, it was 1-nil to the Arsenal. It was not a particularly comfortable or stylish win for the Gunners; but it rarely is in a derby match against Spurs. The only thing that mattered was that Arsenal collected all three points on offer and effectively rejoined the race for the Premier League title.

Man of the match:

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