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Mar 3, 2013

Spurs assert derby dominance

Talk of a takeover may have been swiftly rebuffed by Arsenal, but they are being overtaken by Tottenham Hotspur. A reported £1.5 billion mystery bid is not being taken remotely seriously by the club's hierarchy. Of more pressing concern should be the race for the Champions League place being badly lost. Seven points separate the two neighbours. Arsene Wenger has ten games to save his club from being worth decidedly less than the quoted price.

There is a possibility that the fractures at Chelsea may let in both Spurs and Arsenal but self-determination is far more preferable. Still, it looks beyond the Gunners. Their mental strength failed them once more. Spurs picked at the bones of a flawed team and then showed great stomach for the fight when it looked as if Arsenal might have a way back.

Two into one will not go. Spurs have a golden chance to end Arsenal's residency in the top four to begin their own. When the final whistle blew, as one final Arsenal attack ended with Jan Vertonghen heading clear, the roar was deafening. A balance of power had been seized for the first time in a generation. Arsenal are likely to be missing from the Champions League for the first time since 1998.

"It's not a big margin yet to be completely safe but it can have an effect on their motivation," said a cautiously delighted Andre Villas-Boas. "We are on an upward spiral and they are on a negative spiral."

White Hart Lane's olde worlde charms extend to a fantastic football stadium atmosphere. Both sets of fans gave as good as they got, and matters were similarly passionate on the field. Tottenham began hurriedly, Arsenal less so, but were never quite able to string in the final ball. High stakes yield tension. The by-product was mistakes.

Emmanuel Adebayor was trusted by Villas-Boas despite a derby meltdown back in November when his sending off derailed his team. An early booking for a stupid lunge on Jack Wilshere suggested that Adebayor had not learned his lesson, but the Togolese trouble-seeker was perhaps saved from another red card by Wilshere's plea for clemency to referee Mark Clattenburg. On Spurs' bench, assistant manager Steffen Freund exasperated at Adebayor's rashness with some fruity German language. Adebayor did not last the course, surviving dismissal but sustaining an injury. When Jermain Defoe arrived in Adebayor's stead, his pace added a dimension at a time Spurs had begun to rock. Arsenal were pegged back, their attacks reduced to snatches as Spurs' defenders threw themselves at everything.

Spurs' first came via the usual source. To say that their upsurge in form is all to do with Gareth Bale might seem unfair yet all but three Tottenham goals in 2013 have come via him and he delivered again. Once again, the Welshman seized the narrative.

He took until the 10th minute to get his first touch in open play, a trademark surge resulting in a desperate Arsenal clearance. At first, a free role did not actually allow Bale much freedom. He had looked somewhat lost in the midfield morass before a flick by Gylfi Sigurdsson found him unusually flat-footed. Next, a burst down the right led him to cross with his less favoured right foot, and when taking a corner, Arsenal fans threw a banana at him; a rather blunt and childish means of mocking his simian looks.

The relative anonymity could not last. This time Bale was alert to Sigurdsson's pass, and bore down on Arsenal's goal with inevitability on his side. He duly scored. Arsenal's previous solidity was swiftly converted into a wobbling mess. Soon after, Parker's fine pass found Aaron Lennon, previously negligible, and the winger rounded Wojciech Szczesny to slot Spurs into derby dreamland.

Per Mertesacker was culpable for both goals. The first resulted from failure to step out in time to spring Bale offside. The second came from a statuesque reaction in an already poor position to Parker's pass. The German does not possess the speed that a top Premier League defender requires. This was a most public exposure of Arsenal's defensive problems. Thomas Vermaelen was yet more to blame for the second. The captain has been less than a marvel this season and Lennon escaped with the Belgian looking completely unaware of his presence.

"At the moment we were 2-0 down, we should have been 2-0 up," said Wenger. "It gave them great confidence for the rest of the game. We were not efficient in the zones where it matters - in the front and in the back."

"Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay," mocked the Spurs fans after the second. The Frenchman, visibly enraged, made a puffa-jacketed lope back to the dug-out and aimed a kick at his seat. When half-time came, he billowed down the tunnel with head shaking vigorously. He returned after the break with lined face writ with determination, to begin 50 minutes-plus of bending Steve Bould's ear. Mertesacker made partial amends with the 50th minute goal that send home fans into collywobbles, though Bale had got the final touch on Walcott's cross.

Wenger attempted to continue the impetus by bringing on Tomas Rosicky for Carl Jenkinson, another guilty party in Arsenal's hopeless first-half defending, but it was a failed tactical switch. Aaron Ramsey is no makeshift right-back and Rosicky barely made much of an impression.

Walcott went close with a header; Michael Dawson boiled over with Thomas Vermaelen over Arsenal's failure to kick the ball out of play when Adebayor suffered the injury that led to him being carried off. Wilshere was growing into the game. Villas-Boas could be heard shouting "press, press, press" when Arsenal's triangles began to finally take shape.

Sigurdsson could have finished the contest but instead chose to pass when there was just Szczesny ahead of him. Injuries to Adebayor and Mousa Dembele prolonged added time to six minutes, but Spurs fans' tension was converted to beautiful agony when the end came. Arsenal are fading in Tottenham's wake.

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