As the match began, I grew in confidence as Arsenal buzzed around the pitch with real intent about them while Tottenham barely had a kick of the ball. The Gunners lacked decisiveness in the final third, however, and failed to carve out a clear-cut chance to take the lead. (what's new?) Giroud and Ramsey had little sniffs at goal, but nothing concrete. Of course, as soon as I declared that we needed to make all this possession count for something, Gareth Bale tucked home a neat finish past Szczesny. Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen sprang the offside trap, but Per Mertesacker didn't get the memo. He played Bale onside and the Welshman easily converted 1v1 with Szczesny who was more focused on raising an arm at the linesman than coming out to smother. It was extremely poor defending that created the chance, but had Szczesny been more alert to the danger and come charging out, Bale would have had a tougher task to score.
Down 1-0 despite of dominating most of the first half is just business as usual for this Arsenal team, so I had a fair bit of hope that we could do our usual second half Houdini act and get back in the game. That hope was all but snuffed out when Aaron Lennon rolled in a second goal two minutes later that was basically a carbon copy of the first. Again Monreal tried to play the offside trip, but this time Thomas Vermaelen was caught completely unaware of his surroundings and allowed the impish Aaron Lennon to dart past him (close enough to pull the old tap-him-on-the-wrong-shoulder trick) and waltz through on Szczesny who stood no chance of reacting in time. It was shocking to see the team captain, in a massive derby match, switch off so completely. I tweeted that he ought to be stripped of the armband for that error alone and I still believe that even 24 hours later.
Per Mertesacker atoned for his first-half error with a glancing header from a corner that sneaked past Lloris just six minutes into the second half. Game on, right? Wrong. This time it was Arsene Wenger who let the team down by failing to throw the kitchen sink at the game just when it needed it. Three minutes later, Jenkinson nearly found Giroud at the near post for the equalizer and you could sense Spurs were on their heels a bit. Le Prof decided to bring on Rosicky for Jenkinson and shift Ramsey to right back. I thought Jenkinson had been having his best game for months while Ramsey had been booked early on. A straight swap for Ramsey would have been the right call.
We needed fresh ideas up front, but the manager failed to act again until he brought on Podolski for Arteta with just 13 minutes left. The German worked a clever 1-2 with Giroud, but his touch was heavy as though he was barely warmed up having just come into the game cold from the bench. Arsene Wenger never used his third substitution despite the fact that Walcott had been anonymous all day and Giroud looked gassed near the end. I know it's not our manager's style to make changes out of desperation, but perhaps a double change of Podolski & Rosicky for Giroud & Ramsey right at 60 minutes might have changed things up enough to spur the team on to an equalizer. Despite his struggles this season, I would have brought the Ox on for Theo at some point partly to change things down the right, but also to show Walcott that he can't disappear in big matches like this and expect to stay on for 90 minutes. Heck, would a triple change on top of Per's goal been out of the question?
As things were, the game fizzled out without Arsenal really threatening to get a second goal. Spurs actually had the best two chances of the second half with Sigurdsson especially culpable when he tried to center a pass instead of passing into an empty net. The Gunners were left to bemoan 120 seconds of incompetence that cost them the game. Arsenal sit fifth in the table, seven points behind Spurs and five behind Chelsea. We have the easiest run-in of those three teams by far, but frankly it's going to take a ridiculous turnaround for this team to put together the run of games that is now necessary to win back a Champions League place.
I said before the Villa game that Arsenal could possibly drop as many as 10 points from their remaining 12 games and still get to 70 points in the table which would hopefully keep them alive for a top four place on the final day of the season. Looking at the schedules for Chelsea and Tottenham, I think that could still work, but only if Tottenham really spit the bit over their last 10 games. Here are the final 10 matches for each team:
@ Fulham (currently postponed)
@ Manchester United
@ Aston Villa
@ West Brom
Arsenal should be favored to win all of their remaining games except for Manchester United at home. Nine wins and a loss would mean that if Chelsea dropped nine points or Tottenham dropped ten, then Arsenal would nick a Champions League spot. Chelsea have already played more matches than probably any club team in the world at this point and are still alive in two cup competitions. It's entirely possible that they could be the more vulnerable of the two sides, especially when you take into account the angst among their fans about Rafa Benitez. As awful as it feels to almost resign to finishing below Tottenham, at this point Arsenal need to take whatever they can get if it means Champions League football next season.
With zero head-to-head matches left against Chelsea or Tottenham, all the Gunners can do is focus on winning all of their remaining games and hoping that their rivals slip up. Arsenal have four very winnable home matches and will at least have the homefield advantage against Manchester United. The problem I see is that all five away trips left on the schedule have traditionally been tricky ones for us in recent seasons. I would be stunned if we could manage five wins from five, but if results go our way in other games over the next couple of weeks, then maybe we could get away with a draw or two, but certainly no other losses unless we want to count on taking something from the United match. I think a scenario of WWDWWDLWWW could get it done if Tottenham go something like LDDWLDWWDW or Chelsea finish up LWWWWLDLWD.
It's mostly grasping at straws for me. We've made things as difficult as possible for ourselves yet again, but this time we don't have an RVP or Thierry Henry get-out-of-jail-free card. The bones of a creaky, unreliable squad have finally been stripped too bare over the last year and I don't think Arsene Wenger has enough to pull one more miracle Champions League qualification out of his hat. The Tottenham team that beat us yesterday really is not that good. Their team that made the Champions League two years ago was probably better. Neither Chelsea nor even the Manchester clubs are that great to be honest. Arsenal have sputtered along this season without really being properly punished for their true lack of quality.
Everton are just two points behind us despite drawing 12 matches. Turn four of those into wins and they would be six points clear. It's a worrying prospect, especially when a very young team like Liverpool is charging late with a combined 9-0 scoreline in their last two league games. Swansea won their first major trophy this season and West Brom have only one less win than Arsenal. While I sit here adding and subtracting points to create hope of a top four finish, the Gunners are, in reality, clinging to top 10 status in the Premier League. Thankfully they have ten days off now so I don't have to think about it anymore. Until that day.