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Apr 22, 2006

The day fair play died

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur

According to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, this was the day fair play died in English football.

It was quite a grand statement from a manager who refused to shake hands with opposite number Martin Jol on an afternoon when his side's hopes of qualifying for next season's Champions League were dealt a huge blow by a goal that will be talked about more than most in this long history of this most passionate of fixtures.

As Emmanuel Eboue and Gilberto bumped into each other 66 minutes into a game that had been dominated by the underdogs from Tottenham, Wenger was convinced the urgings of referee Steve Bennett to play on should have been ignored, that the ball should have been put out of play to allow treatment for the 'injured' parties.

Carrick stopped at the sight of two injured players rolling around next to him, but when both looked ready to get to their feet, he decided to carry on, urged to do so by the referee who checked on the health of both Arsenal players. Rolling the ball to Edgar Davids who supplied Robbie Keane with a pass to open the scoring, it was the cue for all hell to break loose.

Wenger, for once, lost his temper in spectacular fashion, squaring up to Jol and screaming abuse at him, while some of the crowd got a little carried away and had to be escorted away by her majesty's finest. Indeed, one member of the dignitaries in the director's box was shipped out of the ground in less than glorious fashion.

So let's examine the rights and wrongs of an incident where none of those debating can say they are completely in the right. To start with, the injury was inflicted by two players from the same team crashing into each other, so should the opposition kick the ball out after an incident that did not involve them in any way? Michael Carrick summed it up like this: 'I thought they fell over so you can't say we are cheats.'

Then you have to assess the role of referee Bennett. Carrick's temptation to kick the ball away may have been followed through had the match official not waved his hands for play to continue and at the end of the day, Arsenal's biggest mistake was not playing to the whistle.

It came as little surprise that Wenger didn't try to see the broader picture as he faced the press. 'Their bench claim they didn't see the incident on their first goal, but I say they are liars,' barked an irate Arsenal boss.

'If Jol can go home and feel satisfied to have scored a goal like that, then it's up to him but I couldn't do it. You cannot steal a game by acting like that. Until this moment, we have had fair play in English football, but not any more.

'Maybe something has to be done to change the rules now. Against Villarreal, we kicked the ball out all the time when they were falling over, but now this happens to us. It is not right.'

Jol responded in a typically forthright manner, even finding time for a bit of humour in his repost. 'He said I was a liar and I don't think a manager should act in this way,' retorted the Dutchman. 'I was shouting at Edgar Davids when the incident with the two Arsenal players falling over happened, so I missed it. I swear to you, that is what happened.

'At the moment I am annoyed with Wenger, but I'm not a guy who holds a grudge and tomorrow, I will sit down and feel much more calm about this. I won't have a problem with him in the future and I hope he is the same with me. I rate the guy, after all.

'All I can say is that when Wenger squared up to me on the touchline, I had to hold myself back because he doesn't know how strong I am.'

The visitors can only have been boosted as the Arsenal team sheet was pinned up on their dressing room wall shortly before midday, with the sight of Henry on the bench enough to warm even the most pessimistic of Tottenham hearts.

Arrogant is a word that could have been used to describe Wenger's selection that also saw Cesc Fabregas residing on the touchlines, yet it meant the odds had been raised even higher for Tottenham, if that was possible. Lose this game now and they could be accused of lacking the bottle to finish off their Champions League push, yet their first half display suggested the opposite.

Controlling possession for long periods, they created the best chance of the opening 45 minutes, with the talents of English duo Aaron Lennon and Michael Carrick coming to the fore.

Up against Mathieu Flamini, a full-back who has performed superbly in the Champions League this season, Lennon looked almost unplayable at times. With blistering pace and plenty of tricks to compliment, he can only have impressed the watching Sven Goran Eriksson.

The only criticism of Lennon could have been that his final ball was lacking, yet that could not have been an accusation thrust in the direction of the impressive Carrick. His immaculate 25th minute ball gave Jermain Defoe the chance and strike at goal, with Jens Lehmann doing well to save, yet he didn't need to rely on others seconds before the interval.

Embarking on a magical run that was helped by the lack of a challenge from a stagnant Arsenal defence, he got to the point where he merely needed to roll the ball into an empty net after rounding Lehmann. Sadly for Carrick, his touch around the Arsenal keeper was a little heavy and it meant his shot found the side netting when one of the great north London derby goals looked imminent.

It was more of the same after the break as Tottenham continued to probe with intent so while their goal was shrouded in controversy, it was a lead they deserved. However, by the time the game was sent into a whirlwind of controversy, Thierry Henry had arrived into the fray and you could just see the Tottenham defence quivering at his mere presence.

Sinking deeper and deeper, the Spurs defence simply ran out of steam in the final 15 minutes and all they could do was whack balls up to a hapless Jermain Defoe, the Arsenal attacks came on them in waves. Henry's 86th minute leveller was cruel on a Spurs side who had worked so hard, but Jol could feel content after an impressive performance.

'I hope the controversy of our goal does not disguise the fact that we played very well,' Jol said. 'For three quarters of this match, we were the better side and created enough chances to win the game.

'This result means we are in Europe for next season, but the boys were not celebrating in the dressing room. They want the Champions League and if we win our last two games, we will be there.'

Whether it was an crazy or shrewd decision to leave Henry out just three days away from Villarreal, it may be a move that could have vast ramifications for Arsenal's long term future. Wenger has often claimed his European ambitions have been hampered by playing in high energy games a few days before, so he tried to take that problem out of the equation on Saturday.

What he did was gamble on his shadow squad being good enough to fill a void left by Henry in the hope that he can fill both his empty baskets in the next few weeks. Should his European dream turn sour on Tuesday night against Villarreal, his team selection may look very costly.

It could even push Thierry Henry a giant step closer to starting next season as a Barcelona player.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Carrick
In front of England boss Sven Goran Eriksson, Carrick turned on a sparkling performance that was so nearly capped with a stunning goal.

FOOD WATCH: A change from the norm as the early kick-off brought the full English breakfast into play. Very nice too.

INSIDER QUESTION: Why are heterosexual, tough looking male football fans all wearing girly pink shirts these days?

VERDICT: Taking the controversy out of the equation, Tottenham deserved their point at Highbury and having been in fourth spot for a full five months now, they have earned the right to stay there till the end. Two wins against Bolton and West Ham will be enough to push them over the finishing line.

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