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Jan 6, 2014

Arsenal tell Tottenham to 'mind the new gap'

Far be it for me to gloat, but all things considered, 2014 is off to quite the flying start. First, Super Nicky Bendtner scores the winner for Arsenal against Cardiff. I didn't dream that, right? Because in his honor, I'm now wearing my mustache with a top knot. Saturday saw Spurs come swaggering into the Emirates for the North London FA Cup derby, on the back of three victories in the first four games of new manager Tim Sherwood's 4-4-2 revolution, and end up skulking out two hours later enveloped in a haze of despair and disgrace. That's what I call normal service resumed. It wasn't just the utter dominance that Arsenal laid on their bitter local rivals that I find so immensely satisfying, but that the hate-filled and twisted Spurs fans were reduced to hurling coins at Theo Walcott as he was stretchered off the field at the away end. (It now looks like he could be out for up to six months with ligament damage.) - Delaney: Arsenal's FA Cup cruise - McNicholas: Gunners re-emerge after tough run - Story: Gnabry eager to make impact - Transfers: Wenger wanted Lewandowski? - Crace: Spurs' worrying lack of ambition Fortunately for Walcott and his "2-0" finger abacus, they were every bit as accurate at hitting the target as were Spurs' strikers. And really, after blowing more than $150 million during the summer on a bunch of new and underperforming players, you'd think they'd all be tired of throwing their money away.

No, it's not David Moyes' transfer budget - a steward shows off a handful of coins thrown at Theo Walcott: #AFC #THFC pic.twitter.com/Cu56dOnUXQ

— ESPN.co.uk (@ESPNUK) January 4, 2014
In hindsight, I guess Walcott should be grateful that only money rained down on him, given that those classy Spurs supporters have a history of tossing much more dangerous objects when things don't go their way. This is not to say that all the Tottenham faithful feel such homicidal rage toward their league-leading neighbors. Take Sherwood, for instance. "I was an Arsenal fan as a kid," the rookie Spurs boss revealed in an interview he gave prior to getting the job. "I'd love to see them do well." Somewhere in the vicinity of QPR, former Tottenham potentate Harry Redknapp just saw another vein implode on his nose. What a contrast Sherwood's bonhomie is to the paranoid delusions of his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas, who alternately kept warning Arsenal to "mind the gap" and beware their "negative spiral." Of course, this was before the Gunners clawed back from a 10-point deficit to overtake Spurs for fourth and cause Daniel Levy, Tottenham's trigger-happy top dog, to start twitching a pink slip in Villas-Boas' direction. When a couple of humiliating blowouts to Man City and Liverpool followed at the Lane earlier this season, the Man Who Would be Fifth was put out of his misery, clearing the way for Sherwood, the former Spurs player and technical director, to take over and usher in a new tactical philosophy. Instead of the regimented and tedious style favored by AVB, Sherwood opened up the throttle, deploying two strikers in a traditional 4-4-2 formation that would give Spurs more of a cutting edge up front. The initial results were encouraging as Tottenham scored nine goals, picked up 10 points in four games and added to Man United's ongoing pain with an impressive victory Wednesday at Old Trafford. At the same time, Sherwood dug deep into the trash bin and found former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who promptly rewarded his savior with four goals. Yet the case can be made that in transforming Spurs into a more positive, attack-minded team and rejuvenating the career of the mercurial Togolese forward, Sherwood inadvertently fulfilled his desire to "see Arsenal do well." With Spurs sacrificing a man in midfield, they allowed Arsenal to run rampant in the middle, where the Gunners' collection of talented, ball-shuttling smurfs -- Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere -- buzzed about with relentless panache and intensity. Forced to chase their shadows, Spurs were continually on the back foot, leaving Adebayor and Roberto Soldado to fend for themselves against a well-organized Arsenal defense that had as little trouble shutting them down as the Ukrainian prime minister had in blaming John Terry for the recent uprisings against his government. After an initial burst of attacking intent, Adebayor reverted to his old Arsenal form, cutting a lazy and exasperating figure whose body language grew increasingly resigned as it became apparent that there would be no celebratory length-of-the-pitch sprints and maniacal knee slides in front of the home fans. The Arsenal faithful jeered his every errant touch and howled in fiendish delight when in the 56th minute he controlled the ball in the box and spun toward goal, only to lose his footing and hit nothing but air. "She fell over," roared the giddy Gooners. Even though they only led 1-0 by that point, Arsenal had imposed their authority on the match. Arsene Wenger's decision to bubble-wrap a sick Olivier Giroud and bench Lukas Podolski -- Poldi, even Bendtner was better than you against Cardiff! -- led to Walcott operating alone up front. Given that Spurs were starting two center-backs in Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches who could conceivably lose a footrace to Per Mertesacker, Young Theo was certainly seeing visions of a hat trick. But as lively and dangerous as he was around the box, Walcott is still not a clinical finisher, and Arsenal needed a different option to provide the breakthrough. Cue 18-year-old Serge Gnabry, whose confident and assured performance belied the fact that he was making his first start in three months. Displaying a cool head along with expert technique, the German received the ball at the edge of the penalty area, turned sharply away from his marker Kyle Walker and laid a perfectly weighted pass into the flight path of Cazorla, who had come steaming in with no Spurs defender occupying the same zip code. Without breaking stride, the Spaniard struck a laser of a shot past a diving Hugo Lloris and into the far corner for that opening Arsenal goal. As the Emirates erupted, the camera panned to the Tottenham directors box, where a stoic Daniel Levy sat tight-lipped, moving nothing but his twitchy finger. Both his facial expression and the game, however, would take a more downward turn midway through the second half, when Spurs impaled themselves. It began innocuously enough, with hapless Danny Rose collecting the ball in the center circle and looking for an outlet. This was the same sweet-smelling Rose who had become an instant Spurs cult figure when he scored a 30-yard wonder goal in his first senior start to beat Arsenal at White Hart Lane in 2010. Now he was about to become an Arsenal legend thanks to the tenacity and opportunism of Rosicky. The criminally underrated Czech, whose Arsenal career has been blighted by injuries, has been in a wonderful run of form recently, his indefatigable drive and invention in midfield one of the keys to Arsenal's resurgence. But never before did he have the entire Emirates on its feet, holding its collective breath, as he did in the 62nd minute on Saturday. Perhaps distracted by Rosicky’s boy band hair, Rose dawdled on the ball, allowing the Czech to pounce and prod it away from the defender with nothing but pastoral green and Lloris in front of him. How many times have we seen a player break clear and run half the length of the field only for a heavy touch or ill-timed shot to betray him? Not this time, as Rosicky waited for Lloris to commit and then calmly dinked the ball over him before being buried in a delirious Arsenal dog pile. It's hard to describe the expression on Levy's face as he took in all the bedlam around him, but it looked eerily similar to the grimace he was sporting after the final whistle of Liverpool's 5-0 squeaker at White Hart Lane. At New York's Football Factory, where some 40 kitted-out Arsenal fans had braved the arctic conditions to warm their cockles with an elixir of beer and Spurs bile, the bellowed ditties could be heard down the block. "One team in London! There's only one team in London ..." Sitting forlornly at the back and keeping his distance from the mosh pit of celebrating Gooners was a lone Tottenham fan. He had brought muscle along just in case -- or maybe it was his girlfriend? -- but the Arsenal mob was enjoying itself too much to cast anything more than a pitying glance in his direction. One particularly boisterous Gooner stood in the middle of the floor, whirling around with his curly haired angelic-faced 4-year-old daughter on his shoulders and initiating a call and response game. As her father yelled out, "What do you think of Tottenham?" the little girl would answer sweetly with an expletive. It's always heartwarming to see parents instilling proper moral values in their young.