By Richard Clarke at White Hart Lane
Arsenal dropped to third place in the Premier League after a pulsating 3-3 draw at Tottenham on Wednesday night.
Arsène Wenger’s side led after five minutes thanks to Theo Walcott’s breakaway but were pegged back almost immediately by Rafael van der Vaart’s fine strike.
It would be the pattern of the night. The visitors going in front and the hosts hauling them back.
In fact, Arsenal only had breathing space for about four minutes. That began in the 40th minute, immediately after Robin van Persie had added to Samir Nasri’s long-range goal, and ended when Tom Huddlestone thundered in from range just before the half-time whistle.
The second period was equally breathless but it brought only one goal. It came in the 70th minute when Wojciech Szczesny clipped substitute Aaron Lennon and Van der Vaart scored from the spot.
The draw was damaging for both sides. Arsenal now trail Chelsea on goal difference and leaders Manchester United by six points. Tottenham used up their game in hand on fourth-placed Manchester City this evening and are still two points behind Roberto Mancini’s men.
Wenger will draw solace from extending his side’s unbeaten run to 16 games and the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side must still play the two teams just below them.
However, the odds are still stacked against Arsenal lifting the Premier League trophy in May.
Wenger made two changes from the side denied so late against Liverpool on Sunday. Alex Song and Bacary Sagna coming in for Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Eboue.
This was a massive game for both sides. Manchester United’s goalless draw at Newcastle the previous night had re-opened an opportunity many thought had all but disappeared with Dirk Kuyt’s 112th-minute penalty at Emirates Stadium over the weekend.
However, in truth, Arsenal’s recent form had done little to suggest they could truly grasp the nettle.
Wenger’s men needed to re-discover their form and their nerve this evening if they were going to put pressure on Manchester United.
And they made the best possible start.
Only five minutes had elapsed when Cesc Fabregas released Walcott through the middle. The 21-year-old kept his cool to sidefoot a shot past Heurelho Gomes. It was the Englishman’s 12th goal of the season and just what Arsenal needed - but it did not last long.
Two minutes later, Tottenham were level.
Vedran Corluka crossed from the right-hand side and Van der Vaart found space on the edge of the area. He seemed to be shackled by Abou Diaby but managed to get a shot away and beat Szczesny at the near post.
It was a blow and the next five minutes belonged to Tottenham.
But their dominance only led to an Arsenal goal.
In the 12th minute, Nasri, who was already catching the eye, traversed the Tottenham half, exchanged passes with Diaby and left fly. From 25 yards, his shot went through the legs of Michael Dawson and beat Gomes. It was a nice way to add to his account for the first time since New Year’s Day.
Now, it was Arsenal who kicked on.
Van Persie fired over and, on the half hour, the Dutchman released Walcott once more, this time with Benoit Assou-Ekotto in pursuit. The Englishman again showed poise and control but this time his low shot went a whisker wide of the far post.
However, the first 45 minutes would be ruled by no side for long.
Just past the half-hour, Luka Modric fooled Sagna on the right of the area and drove straight at Szczesny
In the 35th minute, Djourou slipped and Roman Pavlyuchenko thumped a deflected shot wide. From the corner, William Gallas nodded over. Both were decent chances.
It was a spell of pressure that Arsenal did not need.
But, in keeping with this crazy game, their response was to score again. In the 40th minute, Gallas tried to chest a low cross from Sagna back towards Gomes but it failed to reach the byline. Walcott nipped in and clipped the ball towards Van Persie at the far post. His initial header was clawed out by Gomes but Van Persie fired the rebound high into the net.
For the first time, Arsenal had daylight. Again, it did not last.
A minute before the whistle, a Fabregas clearance fell to Huddlestone 25 yards out. The England midfielder caught his shot sweetly and it flew past the stranded Szczesny.
Everyone caught the breath at the break. Rarely is a game this important so open or incident-packed.
Redknapp made changes for the second half. Gareth Bale and Corluka went off, Lennon and Younes Kaboul came on.
The Welshman had been struggling with injury in the first half but it was still a significant change of emphasis for Spurs and, as a result, they dominated immediately after the restart.
Van der Vaart fired a free-kick just over and then, after being released down the left, forced a finger-tip save from Szczesny.
Just before the hour, Van Persie raced clear and fired past Gomes. But the ‘goal’ was ruled out for offside; replays suggested it was a controversial call.
The pressure was now all on Arsenal. Tottenham’s main joy came by aiming balls towards the head of Peter Crouch. As in Europe, the tall frontman created confusion in the area with his knockdowns.
In the 63rd minute, Walcott did manage to escape and raced into the area - but his indecision was final.
Arsenal seemed to have taken the sting out of Tottenham however this was a game in which you never felt secure.
In the 70th minute, Assou-Ekotto sent a raking ball in behind Sagna on the left. Lennon raced through and was clipped by Szczesny. Van der Vaart dispatched the penalty.
The game was alight again. Kaboul thundered down then right and cross but Szczesny kicked away a shot from Modric with the Paxton End already calling a goal.
Arsenal fled down the other end and Van Persie’s fierce drive was spilled by Gomes. Gallas mopped up the danger.
Seconds later the Tottenham keeper showed his better side by diving full-length to feather a Fabregas shot beyond the far post.
It was now an end-to-end game. But then again, it always had been.
Szczesny tipped Crouch’s header over the bar and then saved low from Van der Vaart.
With 10 minutes left, Wenger made changes. Nicklas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin for Nasri and Walcott.
Sandro’s drive was blocked by Szczesny but, by way of response, Fabregas had an effort blocked.
The skipper also rifled a shot wide with the final kick of the game.
At the final whistle, the Tottenham fans seemed happier with the result. That says a lot.
Arsenal could and perhaps should have chiseled out a victory here this evening. But, at the same time, it is difficult to deny the hosts their share of the spoils.
From here, Wenger’s side must simply fight, hope and believe.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Djourou Yellow Card
- Song Yellow Card
- Diaby 52
- Walcott 81 Goal!
- Nasri 80 Goal!
- Persie Goal!
- Wilshere 52
- Arshavin 80
- Bendtner 81
- Corluka 45
- Bale 45
- Huddlestone Goal!
- Vaart Goal! Goal!
- Pavlyuchenko 76
- Kaboul 45
- Lennon 45
- Sandro 76