x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Wenger rues inability to hold on to the lead

Arsenal surrender a 2-0 lead at the interval to lose 3-2 to their north London neighbours Tottenham.

Arsenal 2 // Tottenham Hotspur 3

Arsene Wenger jettisoned a water bottle in disgust. Rafael van der Vaart threw one in delight. Hunch-shouldered, almost completely spent from a symbolic first outing as Tottenham Hotspur captain, William Gallas walked off his former club's pitch in solitary triumph, raising his head just once to acknowledge a friend in the crowd.

This was a day to be savoured. The first in 69 away visits to the "Big Four" from which Tottenham had emerged victorious. The first in 17 years on which they had won at their north London bete noire. Utterly unforgettable, for the fairy-tale manner in which Spurs turned around a 2-0 half-time deficit.

Describing his interval attacking gamble as one that could have resulted in a 5-0 loss, Harry Redknapp added to the most unreal afternoon of a barely credible Premier League season by declaring Tottenham genuine contenders for the title.

"It's wide open, this league this year," said the Spurs manager. "Chelsea are not as good as they were. Man United are not as good as they were three or four years ago.

"They are not the forces they were when they were almost invincible, the pair of them. I think we have closed the gap. I said that to the players yesterday morning: 'There's no reason. Why can't you win the championship? Why can't you? Who says you can't?'"

Wenger talked of match statistics that overwhelmingly favoured Arsenal, the debilitating effects of midweek internationals, and a naive susceptibility to the counter-attack as he sought to explain his team's third home defeat of a campaign that should offer them more opportunity to finally overhaul the elite two than the squad from White Hart Lane.

"We had an opportunity to go top of the league and, when we had to deliver, we couldn't," Wenger said. "That's worrying because that is part of our job. I'm convinced that we are in [the title race] but there are opportunities in a championship that you want to take.

"Today we put ourselves in the right position but we failed. We have to accept that, and that is mental more than football. If Tottenham had dominated the game, created 10 chances and won the game we would have said, 'OK, we lost against the better team today.' Today we were always in the position where we could win the game and we didn't."

His team claimed that position on an exquisite goal from an acute angle by Samir Nasri and from Marouane Chamakh converting a cross from Andrey Arshavin.

The visitors had drawn just one first-half save from Lukasz Fabianski as the crowd amused themselves with a chant of "Are you Tottenham in disguise?"

Redknapp responded by replacing the ineffective Aaron Lennon with the returning Jermain Defoe. Almost immediately the additional striker contributed in unusual style, rising above Gael Clichy to head a lusty clearance of an Arsenal set-piece on to Van der Vaart. One clever pass to Gareth Bale and a calm finish from the Welshman had Tottenham back in contention.

"You're 2-0 up you have a free kick for you and you're caught on the counter-attack," Wenger said. "That is very difficult to understand. Once a team comes back to 2-1 they have hope again."

Disabled by their own disbelief, Arsenal conceded an equaliser. First, Alex Song unnecessarily bowled over Luka Modric, then Cesc Fabregas lifted both Chamakh and his own arm at Van der Vaart's free kick. His protest at the penalty was pointless; the Dutchman's conversion flawless.

Wenger shouted in frustration, but worse was to come from his fragile central defence. Wandering out of position as Arsenal chased a winner, Laurent Koscielny missed a free head on goal then cut down Bale on the right.

Van der Vaart bent in a quick free kick, Younes Kaboul inveigled himself between Fabregas and Robin van Persie and headed the ball across and beyond the keeper. Unbelievable, yet true.