There has been talk of it happening for some time, but will yesterday go down as the day that the power in north London shifted from Arsenal to Tottenham Hotspur?
It has been 18 long years since Spurs, then managed by Gerry Francis, finished above their bitter rivals but the 2-1 win at White Hart Lane that moved Tottenham seven points clear of Arsenal has left even Arsene Wenger admitting that his team face an uphill battle to finish in the Premier League top four and qualify for the Champions League for the 16th consecutive season.
The Gunners are fifth in the table, five points shy of Chelsea in fourth place, never mind Spurs in third, and with just ten games left they look set to miss out on a top-four finish for the first time under Wenger’s management.
Before the game, Wenger had claimed that Arsenal ‘couldn’t afford to drop any more points’, and his side started with those words in their ears, enjoying the better of the opening half an hour.
But within a three-minute spell soon after, the defensive frailties that neither he nor Steve Bould have been able to eradicate resurfaced once again as Tottenham raced into a 2-0 lead courtesy of near-identical goals from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, who both broke Arsenal’s shambolic offside trap with ease.
A Per Mertesacker goal early in the second half brought hope, but Spurs defended with a diligence and organisation that Arsenal are incapable of to see out a win of huge significance for both clubs.
That importance wasn’t lost on the managers, and their respective expressions said it all. While Wenger, ashen and crestfallen, looked helplessly exasperated, opposite number Andre Villas-Boas was relaxed and content, even allowing himself to enjoy the chance to add to Arsenal’s ‘negative spiral’.
The Portuguese boss knows all about them from his time at Chelsea, but Villas-Boas is confident that Spurs can avoid the late-season collapse that saw Arsenal overturn the same gap at the same stage of last season.
“The difference this year is that we are on an upward spiral in terms of confidence whereas they are in a negative spiral and once you get into that negative spiral it’s difficult to get out of it,” he said.
“Last year Arsenal made up the difference and we all know what happened at the end of the season, but the difference this time is we are extremely confident whereas they are in a low at the moment.
“For them to jump back from here is going to be very difficult, although they can do it. Nothing is finished yet.”
Wenger was left to bemoan yet more poor defending that has seen their domestic trophy hopes ended by lower league Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers, as well as left them with a near-impossible 3-1 deficit to overturn against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last 16.
He said: “At the back, we played offside in a position where we shouldn’t have done it. I feel sorry for the team and the fans, because when you produce so much in a game and come away with so little it’s a big disappointment.
“I feel we were on top of the game when we conceded the goals, and that is most frustrating. If you’re dominated and the opponent scores you can accept it, but the way it happened is difficult to swallow.
“It’s very frustrating because we had the best defensive record away from home in the league before today. But it [poor defending] has happened to us many times this season and only in big games. It’s difficult to explain. There’s no common theme, it’s different problems. But you make it difficult for yourselves.”
The Frenchman admitted that Arsenal now have a huge task to finish in the top four.
“It’s a massive challenge, massive. I said before the game that we couldn’t drop points and I maintain that. We have to fight and it will be difficult now, because we dropped points that we couldn’t afford to drop.”
The bookies at bwin agree, making Arsenal a 7/4 chance to finish in the top four, out from 6/5. Tottenham are 3/10 (from 1/2) to stay in the Champions League places.