Arsenal went into yesterday's north London derby with Tottenham Hotspur knowing that they quite simply had to win the game. They were 10 points behind Spurs with 13 games left, and three points off fourth placed Chelsea too. A three goal victory was necessary to go back into fourth place, and stay ahead in the race for the final Champions League place for next season.
When the team was announced I was delighted to see both Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs had been passed fit, and Arsenal had a relatively strong defence as a result. I was also a little surprised to see Yossi Benayoun start on the right side of the Arsenal attack, as both Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were on the substitutes bench. Aaron Ramsey missed out with an ankle injury which meant Tomas Rosicky was in the midfield again.
Spurs dominated the possession in the first few minutes, and took the lead after they broke up Arsenal's first real attack. Emmanuel Adebayor played a ball through the centre of a non-existent Arsenal defence for Louis Saha. Thomas Vermaelen managed to get back, but unfortunately his block on Saha's shot looped up and over Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal.
It was a disastrous start for Arsenal, and they immediately tried to put things right by pouring forward. They dominated possession, but Spurs looked likely to add to their lead on the break at any time. Arsenal had chances to equalise, but Robin van Persie missed the best of them before the game became even harder for them.
After just over 30 minutes Gareth Bale raced right through the centre of the Arsenal defence onto a through ball, and he went down to earn them a penalty. The replays showed there was no contact, but he managed to fool both the referee and his assistant. The referee decided to take no action against Szczesny, but surely he should have given him a red card if he felt he had taken Bale down.
It was a very curious decision by the referee, and it suggested to me that he was unsure whether a foul had been committed or not. He can only give a free kick or penalty if he is sure an offence has been committed, and I would very much like to hear his version of events. Arsenal had failed to win any of their previous 10 games which Mike Dean had refereed, and that run looked like stretching to 11.
Adebayor stepped up and put the penalty away despite the best efforts of Szczesny, and Arsenal were two down with 10 minutes of the first half left. The Arsenal players continued to pour forward and Spurs looked vulnerable to me, as Arsenal had a distinct advantage in midfield. They looked capable of getting something out of the game if they could just pull a goal back before half-time.
As it turned out Arsenal went in level at the break after a dramatic final five minutes of the first half. They looked like they had pulled one back when Theo Walcott set up RVP, but his shot hit the post. Mikael Arteta immediately crossed the ball back into the penalty area, and Bacary Sagna was on hand to head it into the net past Brad Friedel.
It was just the boost Arsenal needed, and they continued to pour forward in search of an equaliser. That goal came only three minutes later when RVP got on the end of a poor clearance by Benoit Assou-Ekotto and swiveled on the edge of the area before curling the ball into the top corner. It was a fantastic goal, and few players besides RVP would have been capable of it.
Spurs made two changes at half time to try to be more competitive, but it took only five minutes for Arsenal to score again. They broke quickly through Rosicky, and he played the ball to Sagna who was overlapping on the right side. Sagna put the ball into the goalmouth and Rosicky had continued his run to stab it home at the near post.
Arsenal continued to dominate the game as the players displayed the pride and passion which they have been accused of lacking in recent times. They missed a few good chances in the next 15 minutes, but they got their just rewards after 65 minutes. Arsenal broke again and RVP held the ball up for Walcott before playing him in on the right hand side. Walcott advanced on Friedel, and clipped the ball over him as he advanced to make it 4-2.
It looked like Arsenal had the victory sewn up, and only three minutes later they added to their lead again. Alex Song played a ball over the top for Walcott, and he advanced before finishing it excellently into the far corner. It was quite incredible that Arsenal had managed to turn a two goal deficit into a three goal lead in 28 minutes of game time.
Arsenal saw the rest of the game out with relative ease, and they looked more likely to add to their lead rather than concede a third. The victory meant a lot to the players, and it was obvious through their delight at the final whistle. It meant just as much to the fans, and the manner of the victory was something for them to cherish.
I haven't been Rosicky's greatest fan, but he had an excellent game and he looked like the player Arsenal signed six years ago. His had had an awful time with injuries, but his performance yesterday suggested he has finally found the form that made such an excellent signing in 2006. His goal was his first one in over two years, and he fully deserved to be named man of the match in my opinion.
Arsenal's defending was still far from perfect, but that was the first time those four defenders had played together since the first game of the season. Gibbs went off with 15 minutes left, and I hope it was only as a precaution as he has played so little football in the past four months. The defenders got stuck in and did all that could be asked of them, but positionally they were found wanting on too many occasions.
Both full-backs attacked very well, and it was great to see the impact of Arsenal having real full-backs playing in those positions. There's a lot to be said for a properly balanced side, and Arsenal look a lot better going forward with two players who know how to overlap. The next step is for the defenders to get the defensive part of their game right.
Arsenal have rightly been accused of playing the game far too slowly at times this season, but they played with real pace yesterday. Their tempo caused Spurs some real problems at times yesterday, and if they can continue to play with that urgency they can still make something of this season.
The fight for fourth place is still very much alive, but the gap to third place suddenly looks like it's no longer insurmountable. Next weekend could be a huge one for Arsenal, as they face a trip to Liverpool early on Saturday. The next day Spurs are at home to second placed Manchester United, and if the results go Arsenal's way they could find themselves breathing down Spurs' necks with 11 games to go.
The three goal win was enough to move Arsenal ahead of Chelsea into fourth place, and to restore some pride in the club. Liverpool won't be an easy task next week, but another performance like yesterday will give the team a real chance of getting a result. The players need to find performances like that in every single game between now and the end of the season.
The north London bragging rights belong firmly to Arsenal yet again, and the next step is for them to close the gap between them and Spurs. It won't be an easy task for Arsenal, but Spurs have a lot of questions to answer too. I'm hoping that the real Spurs were the team that Arsenal took apart yesterday.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
See you tomorrow.