By Richard Clarke
Arsenal's Premier League title hopes are all but over.
Arsène Wenger's side went down 2-1 to Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Wednesday evening and are now six points behind leaders Chelsea with only a maximum of 12 available.
A thunderous 30-yard volley from Danny Rose set the tone for the night after only 10 minutes. Despite pressing their hosts, Arsenal suffered another blow when Thomas Vermaelen hobbled off injured shortly afterwards.
Gareth Bale slotted home a second two minutes after the restart to give Tottenham breathing space. Arsenal kept forcing themselves forward but they only found a cutting edge when Robin van Persie was introduced with 22 minutes left.
His free-kick produced a fantastic save from Heurelho Gomes, as did Sol Campbell's close-range header. Nicklas Bendtner forced home Theo Walcott's low cross to give Arsenal hope five minutes from the end. The visitors kept pressing until the end but time ran out.
This was Arsenal's first Premier League defeat to Tottenham since 1999. Any reverse to local rivals is painful but given the unbeaten run and the state of the title race, this will be very difficult to take.
As ever, the immediate reaction will be anger and frustration but, once that has subsided, you would hope fans will realise the strides the side have made this season.
Arsenal have remained in the title race until the last month of 2009/10 sesaon. Next year they will be back and, on the strength of this campaign, they will be better.
The headline team news had been known for some time and, even though he only made the bench, it was great to see Van Persie back in an Arsenal shirt once again.
The other notable name, for the home fans at least, was Campbell. He replaced Mikael Silvestre from the team beaten so badly at Barcelona eight days earlier while Emmanuel Eboue came in for Theo Walcott on the right side of midfield.
Of course, Tottenham's last defeat had been more recent and more surprising. Harry Redknapp made a number of changes to the side that lost that FA Cup Semi-Final to Portsmouth so late on Sunday.
The most eye-catching saw midfielder Rose came in for his Premier League debut and Ledley King return after a seven-week absence.
The atmosphere was everything you expected as the teams came out. But apart from the usual red-hot rivalry, both teams knew their competitive seasons were reliant on a win tonight. Something had to give.
The early butterflies had barely dissipated when Arsenal nearly took the lead. In the second minute, Bale gave away a corner on the right. Campbell thundered in and deflected it goalward via his knee. The effort trickled past the outstretched hand of Gomes but Benoit Assou-Ekotto crouched down to chest the ball back into the grateful arms of the keeper.
Campbell had already drawn the boos of the home crowd, as he would all game. A scuffled, stolen goal from their former captain would have cranked the intensity still further.
Arsenal were doing all the attacking. Samir Nasri had a shot blocked and then Eboue danced through only for the sliding Michael Dawson to smother a tentative shot from Tomas Rosicky.
But Spurs would respond. In the ninth minute, they worked the ball to Younes Kaboul on the right and Roman Pavlyuchenkco's near-post shot was deflected over the bar by Vermaelen.
Bale's corner was punched well clear by Almunia but it was met on the volley by Rose. His long-range, left-foot shot flew over the Arsenal defence and into the back of the net. It was a bolt from the blue in every sense.
Arsenal were rocked but they responded. Clichy crossed for Bendtner to grapple past his marker and nod wide.
However, in the 18th minute, they suffered another blow. Under no pressure in his own half, Vermaelen booted the ball out of play, went down on his knees and called for the physio. His game was over and Silvestre came on.
As the first half reached its midway point, Arsenal could be pleased with their approach play and may have convincingly argued that their setbacks were beyond their control. But with so little time to go in the season and so much at stake, they simply had recover.
They did exactly that. The visitors dominated the second quarter of the game. Spurs were penned back and struggled to get the ball. Arsenal had pressure and possession but could not cut through.
Their best effort came in the 34th minute when Campbell nodded the ball back into the path of Rosicky, whose drive nutmegged Dawson but was blocked by King.
Tottenham clawed their way back into game as the whistle approached. Rose tested Almunia at the near post then Modric burst through challenges from Clichy and the sprawling Almunia before Campbell cleared the danger.
Rose may have made the difference in the first half but he did not reappear after restart. David Bentley was his replacement.
Within two minutes, Tottenham had that vital second goal. Defoe was allowed to turn near the left-hand byline and his simple, straightforward cross-field ball found Bale at the far post. The unmarked Welsh midfielder, who had been played onside by Sagna on the right, gleefully slid home his shot between Almunia and the upright.
It was a horrible goal to concede and one that could haunt Arsenal's season. The visitors now needed three goals in 40 minutes to keep pace with Chelsea.
Not surprisingly Tottenham were now instilled with confidence and began push forward themselves.
Wenger's reply was to introduce Walcott for Sagna and push Eboue to right back. It made an immediate difference.
Arsenal found the England international whenever they could but, as they had all night, Tottenham stayed firm. And, of course, the home side knew Wenger's side had to attack them.
Effectively this was now cup football.
In the 65th minute, Walcott slid a pass down the right-hand channel and Bendtner fired a fierce shot across the face of goal.
A couple of minutes later Wenger introduced Van Persie for Denilson. It smacked of a gamble but the Arsenal manager had little choice.
Tottenham made a simultaneous substitution - Eidur Gudjohnsen for Defoe - and the Icelander might have ended the argument immediately but he miscued his shot from Assou-Ekotto's right wing cross.
Arsenal had all the urgency you could wish for but, to this point, Gomes had barely been called into serious action all night. The visitors had been passing and probing and probing and passing - but with little end result.
That changed with 11 minutes left. Diaby flicked a ball into the area, Van Persie chested it down and sent backward volley goalward. Gomes made a great reaction save.
Seconds later, Rosicky's deflected effort trickled wide. A heart-in-mouth moment for the home side.
Arsenal were on the offensive and Gomes now took centre stage. First he brilliantly tipped away a curling free-kick from Van Persie. Then he diverted Campbell's header onto his own bar. In keeping with Arsenal's night it bounced away to safety.
They visitors were now desperate. They needed a goal. They got one.
In the 85th minute, Walcott found width on the right and cross low into the area for Bendtner to stab home. The Dane collected the ball and raced back to the centre circle, the visitors had the scent of a comeback.
Van Persie forced another full-length save from Gomes with a couple of minutes.
But it was too little too late for Arsenal. Tottenham had done a sterling job of keeping them at distance throughout the game.
They traversed the last few minutes with little real alarm.
- Sagna 52
- Vermaelen 19
- Denilson 67 Yellow Card
- Bendtner Goal!
- Silvestre 19
- Walcott 52
- van Persie 67
- Dawson Yellow Card
- Bale Goal!
- Kaboul Yellow Card
- Modric Yellow Card
- Rose 46 Goal!
- Pavlyuchenko 88
- Defoe 67
- Bentley 46
- Crouch 88
- Gudjohnsen 67