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Mar 3, 2013

Bale extends scoring run to spark Spurs

Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon scored in a three-minute span late in the first half, giving Tottenham a 2-1 win over visiting Arsenal on Sunday in a North London derby that could prove to be pivotal in the race for Champions League qualification.

Bale put Tottenham ahead in the 37th minute when he beat an offside trap on a pass from Gylfi Sigurdsson and sent a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny for his 10th goal in eight games and 20th this season.

Just 140 seconds later, Scott Parker threaded a pass behind the Thomas Vermaelen, and Lennon rounded Szczesny to slot into an empty net.

Per Mertesacker scored Arsenal's goal on a 51st-minute glancing header that deflected in off Bale.

Tottenham (16-6-6) is third with 54 points, two ahead of Chelsea (15-6-7) and seven in front of Arsenal (13-7-8), which is seeking its 16th straight Champions League berth under manager Arsene Wenger. The top four teams qualify for Europe's top club competition.

"It's not a big enough margin yet to be completely safe,'' said Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas, whose team is now unbeaten in 12 league matches. "But what we think is that it can have a direct effect on their motivation - and on ours, too.''

With Arsenal likely to go without silverware for an eighth successive season, Wenger has been pinning his hopes on a top-four finish to salvage something from a miserable campaign. But even that is in serious doubt now. There is no more room for error -- and such is Arsenal's fragility, especially in defense, that further setbacks seem likely between now and the end of the season.

"It's a massive challenge,'' Wenger said. "I still think it's possible and will fight for it, that's for sure.''

Arsenal came back from a 10-point deficit to Spurs last season to secure qualification for Europe's top competition on the final day, but Wenger had Robin van Persie up front then. And Bale wasn't in the kind of scintillating form that is currently earning him comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Wales winger is virtually carrying Tottenham back into the Champions League on his own, with his latest strike buttressing his strong chances of winning English football's Player of the Year award. It also ensured he equaled the club record -- held jointly by Robbie Keane, Rafael van der Vaart and Teddy Sheringham -- of scoring in five straight Premier League games.

Playing centrally rather than on the left wing, he had arguably been having his quietest match of the season up until his goal, with Arsenal starting the stronger and its oft-criticized defense looking compact.

It then simply disintegrated.

First, an unchallenged Gylfi Sigurdsson slipped a ball through for Bale to beat the offside trap in a central position before finishing with the outside of his left foot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. His 20th goal of the season in all competitions was met with chants of "He scores when he wants'' by the delirious home fans.

Arsenal's back line, which has been suspect all season especially through the middle, hadn't learned its lesson because Scott Parker threaded a pass behind the docile Thomas Vermaelen and Lennon rounded Szczesny to slot into an empty net only 140 seconds later.

Such is Tottenham's form is that the team may yet overtake second-place Manchester City, which is only two points clear ahead of Monday's match at Aston Villa. Finishing fourth and ahead of Arsenal will be Spurs' priority, however.

"The difference from last year is that we are on an upward spiral in terms of confidence and they are on a negative spiral in terms of results,'' Villas-Boas said. "To come out of that negative spiral will be very difficult.''

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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