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Sep 15, 2007

Burying the ghost of Henry

Tottenham Hotspur 1 - 3 Arsenal

There were those who believed the departure of Thierry Henry would signal the beginning of the end of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal's dynasty, yet the truth seems to be far more encouraging than the theory.

As Arsenal swept to a hugely impressive victory at the home of their nearest rivals, Wenger had every right to feel a glow of satisfaction as the master plan he has been working on for the last three seasons seems to be coming together in glorious fashion.

Oozing with class and threatening to show the cutting edge they so often lacked when they were dependent on Henry, Arsenal are the emerging as the title contenders no-one picked and Wenger can take most of the credit for their evolution.

The Frenchman has long been eulogising about the potential of the young players he has put his faith in this season, but it now seems as if he, and not the doubters who wrote him off not so long ago, will be proved right. Whisper it quietly, but Arsenal without Henry may even be a little better than the Gunners side that went so close to Champions League glory with their legendary talisman leading the line.

Led by the mercurial Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's youngsters are now coming into their own in all areas and their refusal to shy away from a silky passing style that has long been viewed as both their greatest asset and primary problem, is charming and refreshing in equal measure.

Manchester United may have come close to matching Arsenal for entertainment value last season, but there can be little doubt that Wenger's team boast a style that leaves many neutrals hoping they succeed. All too often, brawn has beaten their brains when it has mattered most in the last couple of years, but Wenger has always stayed loyal in his conviction of how his side will play.

So even after Gareth Bale fired Tottenham into a 14th minute lead with a well placed free-kick on a beautiful autumn day in North London, Arsenal refused to panic and they should have been on level terms long before the break if they had taken the chances the created by carving their opponents open time and again.

Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Adebayor wasted clear-cut chances either side of half-time and had Dimitar Berbatov and Tom Huddlestone not spurned glorious chances to double that lead in what developed into a thrilling derby battle, Arsenal may have been making the short journey home nursing some wounds.

Instead, they proved themselves to be up to the challenge of bouncing back and as Emmanuel Adebayor rose highest in the box to head Arsenal level after 65 minutes, this game seemed to swing in the direction of the resident North London superpowers.

Even though Robbie Keane wasted a clear chance to restore Tottenham's lead, the pressure Arsenal put on defences with their quick and incisive play was beginning to tell and after Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas went close to firing the Gunners ahead, a fearful hush descended on White Hart Lane.

The game so nearly took an unexpected twist as Berbatov saw his header scrambled off the line 12 minutes from time, but then Fabregas struck his power-packed goal and with that, Tottenham boss Martin Jol knew he was in for more intense speculation about his future. England keeper Paul Robinson would have been disappointed as he was beaten with a long range shot once again.

Such issues are of little concern to Wenger, who will believes his side are proving them have discovered the way to add a winning touch to their creative brilliance. 'We scored the difficult chances and missed the easy ones in this game, but the result shows that the side is growing and maturing as I had hoped,' said a jubilant Wenger. 'It was important that we started the season well after losing Thierry Henry in the summer and while a player like that will never be forgotten, we are moving on now.

'We are playing in a very pleasing way. That is always going to be the case so long as I am the manger here, but the goals we scored in this game were very special and I have a great faith in these players to produce such moments. Even when we went in a half-time a goal behind, I just told the players to keep passing the ball and doing what they are good at. I knew it would turn in our favour and even though there were a few scares along the way, we got there in the end. This was probably our best performance of the season.

'It is nice to look at a league table and see Arsenal right at the top again and I couldn't fault the consistency of the team in this game. Even when we went behind, we showed the spirit you need to come back.'

It was easy to have some sympathy with Tottenham boss Martin Jol as the press room was quickly filled with rumours that his tenure as Tottenham boss would soon come to an end, but he remained defiant as he faced the media. 'The chairman says he is behind me, but this situation is not just about me as I have a great life whatever happens,' said a resigned Jol. 'I cannot fault my players for the commitment they showed in this game, but Arsenal were just a bit luckier than us and took more of their chances.

'I've been under press from day one, so I'm not worried because the press tell me I'm in trouble now. I will keep fighting and I'm sure this team will start winning soon.'

How Jol must wish he had the scouting network Wenger has been working with for the last ten years as the kids he has at his disposal have the potential to follow in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson's crop of the mid-1990s that went on to achieve so much.

In Fabregas, he has a true master of the modern game, while the likes of Gael Clichy, Abou Diaby and Denilson play with the sort of style and grace that only great players possess. In Kolo Toure, he has an unsung hero of real quality and while they have yet to square off against a top four rival this season, they have every right to feel optimistic.

'Maybe we are already back at the top of this league and I don't just mean for a few days in September,' added Wenger. 'I have total faith in these players and I think the performances are backing up what I felt was possible for us this season. We have a great start and I'm convinced we can carry it on.'

The contrast of emotions could not have been bigger between the Tottenham and Arsenal camps after this latest instalment of North London's oldest rivalry. While you wonder whether Martin Jol will get another chance to manage in this famous old fixture, Arsene Wenger must have been tempted to mutter 'I told you so' to his detractors.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cesc Fabregas

The little Spanish magician took time to find his feet in a crowded midfield, but he began to assert his influence after the break and scored a brilliant winner.

FACE IN THE CROWD: Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles may not be one of Europe's sexiest men, but he was attending this game with a girl whose good looks would be welcomed on a catwalk. Clearly she sees the inner spirit in a man.

FOOD WATCH: A beef and ale pie made this a traditional North London pre-match lunch on offer in the Spurs press room and the half-time meat pie also went down well.

INSIDER QUESTION: Do any players opt for the traditional black boots in the Premier League? Pascal Chimbonda's glaring yellow footwear was a sight to behold, while Emmanuel Adebayor's shocking red matched his Arsenal kit.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Wenger's kids may well have been overawed by the presence of Thierry Henry in his final two years at the club as they are now playing with a freedom that was absent when all the focus was on the legendary No.14. This team are title contenders who will get better as the season moves on.


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