Premier League - Spurs and Arsenal draw classic
Tottenham and Arsenal shared the spoils in a 3-3 Premier League draw at White Hart Lane in a humdinger of a North London derby that landed a blow to both sides’ aspirations.
Tottenham came from 1-0 and then 3-1 down to grab a deserved draw in a game neither side deserved to lose - but the result means Arsenal’s title bid is all-but over, six points behind leaders Manchester United and dropping to third, below Chelsea on goal difference after they beat Birmingham.
Spurs, meanwhile missed the chance to move level on points with fourth-placed Manchester City, with the final score greeted gladly by Mancunians of both persuasions.
Both teams now have six-pointers at crucial stages of the season, with Spurs facing Champions League qualification rivals City on May 10, while Arsenal host United on May 1 - matches both London sides now really have to win.
If either side can attack like they did at White Hart Lane then they have a puncher’s chance against their more defensively-minded rivals.
A crazed first half started in barnstorming fashion as caution was tossed to the breeze with both sides only looking for three points.
Cesc Fabregas was in his best form of the season and his delightful through ball helped Walcott open the scoring on five minutes, the England forward’s clever run tearing apart Spurs’ offside trap and buying him the time for a cool low finish across Heurelho Gomes.
But Spurs were level within two minutes as Van der Vaart spanked a glorious finish past Wojciech Szczesny from the edge of the box.
Peter Crouch, restored to the first XI after suspension for the defeat to Real Madrid, dragged a low shot wide after a clever run by Van der Vaart, while down at the other Van Persie tested Gomes with a rising drive.
Arsenal drew blood again soon afterwards with Gomes possibly culpable when Nasri fired a speculative low shot through the legs of Michael Dawson and into the middle of goal: the Brazilian’s position meant he should really have been able to adjust, although he may well have seen the ball late.
It was 2-1, with chances galore, and the match was only 12 minutes old. The next half an hour was similarly pleasing on the eye, although without score as Walcott was denied an identikit second by a fingertip Gomes save, while Luka Modric was kept out by Szczesny.
With four minutes of normal time left in the first half, Arsenal thought they had put the game beyond Spurs’ reach when Walcott turned supplier with the kind of delivery thought beyond a player renowned for pace and pace alone.
After William Gallas could only chest down Bacary Sagna’s driven cross, Walcott did brilliantly to dig out an inch-perfect cross from an impossible angle: Van Persie’s initial header was saved in style by Gomes but the Brazilian was helpless as the Arsenal striker got to the rebound quickest, hammering an unstoppable finish into the roof of the net.
Szczesny left the unusually quiet Gareth Bale in a heap after he fairly won a 50-50 ball: the Welshman flew into the prostrate Pole, and appeared to jar his knee, leaving him limping for the rest of the half and substituted for Aaron Lennon at the break.
The topsy-turvy nature of the game took another twist a minute before the 45 as Huddlestone, whose passing had been hit-and-miss, showcased his wonderful technique with a beautiful half-volley from the edge of the box, controlled and angled as it sliced through players from both sides and nestled to the left of Szczesny.
And seconds later there was a moment of controversy as referee Martin Atkinson failed to award a penalty when Sagna, returning from injury, unnecessarily stuck an arm into the neck of Modric just inside the box: the Croat had overplayed the ball but, whether he was going to get there or not, a foul is a foul and it should have been a spot-kick.
Nine minutes in Van der Vaart - who seemed offside - forced a smart stop from Szczesny, while Van Persie’s wonderful finish was ruled out after he strayed beyond the last defender.
Lennon was causing problems with his searing pace, but his decision-making was awry when he hooked the ball back after Szczesny went walkabout with the finish clearly on.
Walcott, Lennon’s main rival for the right-wing slot in England’s starting XI, should have done better too, delaying after latching on to a Roman Pavlyuchenko error and dragging a cross-shot wide: an early effort would have surely tested Gomes.
Recently crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year, Bale’s absence in the second half was hardly noted: he barely registered in the opening 45 minutes, while Lennon was a livewire - with 20 minutes left, his pace left Arsenal for dead, leading to a rash challenge from Szczesny who was spared a card by virtue of the former Leeds United winger being too far wide to be deemed a goal threat.
The penalty was immediately given, and Van der Vaart made no mistake with a low finish to the right, Szczesny sent the wrong way.
It seemed that someone would grab a winner as both sides went for it late on but, alas, there was no final drama.
Both keepers were to thank for that, redeeming their earlier errors with magnificent saves: Szczesny from Modric and Crouch, Gomes from Fabregas on two occasions.
There was almost a fairytale ending for Fabregas, in the press recently for barbed comments about his club’s recent progress, but he could only drill wide in the dying seconds of stoppage time.
Atkinson quickly blew up and Spurs boss Harry Redknapp could afford a wry smile as he shook his counterpart’s hand. Arsene Wenger looked less amused.