I can only shake my head in disbelief after watching this Carling Cup semi final 1st leg derby. So much is clear - either Arsenal are damn lucky or Tottenham have a mental block. Arsenal’s veritable unbeaten run against their arch-rival (20 games since November 1999) was extended after Theo Walcott salvaged a 1-1 draw on Wednesday.
If we were to look at Tottenham’s record in Arsenal’s territory, it gets even more pitiful. For 15 good years, they were unable to conquer the Gunners even once. It begs the question, what must Tottenham do to defeat Arsenal? Not for the first time, they played well, led for the better part of the game but only to squander it at the end.
Arsenal started off the match on the right tone as they controlled the tempo while Tottenham rarely ventured forward. Their passing was fine but the front line lacked punch. For all their possession, the only serious attempt on goal came from Nicklas Bendtner’s powerful 14th-minute header, which keeper Cerny bravely saved.
As the game progressed, Spurs stood up to the onslaught and asserted themselves. Steed Malbranque wasted an excellent chance to give them the lead after 32 minutes, firing wide with only goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski to beat.
A minute later, Malbranque headed wide under pressure and Dimitar Berbatov (continuing his recent scintillating form) forced Fabianski into a fine save with a long-range shot. Spurs were rewarded for their enterprising play when Jermaine Jenas put them ahead by tapping in Robbie Keane’s square pass in the 37th minute. There was a slight suspicion of offside but the goal stood.
Keane had a chance to double Spurs’ lead but shot wide early in the second half. Jermain Defoe, who came on as a late substitute, went close to winning it for the visitors only to fire high and wide. Ramos is prepared to let Defoe leave and based on this performance, even if it was only for a few minutes, I believe there will be no shortage of suitors.
Wenger was forced to make some changes at half time as Eduardo replaced an injured Robin van Persie and Arsenal benefitted from a renewed impetus in attack. Eduardo, like Berbatov, enjoys being the creative spark and has an impressive run of late. His clever through ball found Walcott and while Spurs defender Lee Young-pyo made a timely tackle which seems to have snuff out the effort, the ball took a wicked bounce off him and Walcott duly chested it into the net.
This is a weird deflection and has nothing to do with Walcott’s brilliance (the footballing gods are blessing Arsenal). The hapless Cerny must have been so engrossed with the action before him that he stood rooted while the ball flew past him.
Speaking about Cerny, he has now upgraded himself in the pecking order. And while this performance is barely satisfactory, at least it ends in a draw and until such time when the nightmarish memories of Paul Robinson’s errors are erased from Juande Ramos mind, Cerny should be featuring in Tottenham’s lineup.
Robinson had already lost his England place this season and Ramos was non-committal about whether Robinson was still his No.1 choice and whether he would play against Chelsea on Saturday.
Ramos said: “He is a good goalkeeper which he has demonstrated with his career so far. But I choose who I think is best for each match. It was the same decision as Stalteri, Boateng and all the players who are on the bench.”
Tottenham were 11 minutes to ending their barren spell before Arsenal equalized. Under the circumstances in which they earned the draw, Wenger had no complaints.
He said: “I believe it is a good result considering Tottenham created more chances. We had to be resilient and didn’t give in. In two weeks it can change completely. I feel we are in a good position to make it.”
Wenger may be confident of eliminating Tottenham. After all, Arsenal knocked Spurs out at the same stage of the competition last year and there is little reason why they cannot repeat the feat.
However, he may not be so confident of their Premier League title challenge with an injury crisis to resolve. The match left him counting his walking wounded after Robin van Persie, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Theo Walcott were all injured.
Van Persie was forced off at half-time after suffering a thigh problem. The Dutch striker had been sidelined with a knee injury since October and Wenger will wait nervously for an exact diagnosis on Thursday.
Even more worrying for the Gunners manager were Senderos’s knee ligament problem and Djourou’s groin strain. With Kolo Toure, Alex Song and Emmanuel Eboue on African Nations Cup duty, Wenger is short of defensive options as the title race hots up.
If Senderos and Djourou don’t recover in time for Saturday’s home game against Birmingham, the league leaders will be left with William Gallas as his only fit centre-back. If they are out for two weeks, Wenger may be held at ransom in the transfer market and spend more than more than they normally would. Or he could promote more players from his youth team to shore up the team.
He said: “We had no injuries before the game started but now we have lost three players and we have three at the African Nations Cup. That is very difficult for us. We have problems with the central defence. Who will play against Birmingham? Me!”
I believe Wenger will field a strong team in the return match instead of relying on the reserves. He knows his team are riding their luck and Totteham deserved more than a draw. Luck can be unpredictable and the day will come when the mighty shall fall.
Under Ramos, Tottenham have played two games at the Emirates Stadium and they are getting closer to a victory each time. Maybe for the next 90 minutes, they should treat Arsenal as an ordinary opponent and not accord special meaning to the derby. Play badly and kill off the match with a freak goal, that should do the trick of getting the much needed victory.