Arsenal fall short in derby classic
White Hart Lane
Arsene Wenger fell back on the cushions that have provided constant comfort throughout Arsenal's barren years - but nothing can offer protection from the brutal reality that unfolded before him at White Hart Lane.
Despite seeing the Gunners drop to third in the Premier League table behind Manchester United and Chelsea, Wenger praised his players for their mental fortitude, commitment and attitude in a 3-3 draw with Tottenham that was a classic of its kind.
And yet the agitated, animated behaviour of the Frenchman in his technical area as Arsenal cast aside a two-goal lead, betrayed torment at the latest wasted opportunity.
Wenger, whose side lie six points behind United with only five games left, rightly stated that Arsenal can still claim the title but the body language of manager and players as referee Martin Atkinson called time on a wonderful game suggested this may well be the setback that takes the goal tantalisingly out of reach once more.
Wenger looked drained from the sheer emotion and disappointment of it all. And for all his understandable praise for Arsenal - and there is so much to admire - there is a vulnerability, a fragility about his side that has once again driven at the heart of their pursuit of success this season.
He railed against decisions with the fourth official, gestured furiously at his defenders when Arsenal were under pressure and engaged his backroom staff in heated discussion. The pressure, self-evidently, was on.
Van der Vaart find the net for Spurs. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal have had six points for the taking against Liverpool and Spurs and walked away with two. In a Premier League season that has hardly been vintage quality, these are the fine margins on which it will be decided.
And if Arsenal do not win the title, they will have cast aside a golden chance.
The neutral would need a hard heart not to feel sympathy for Wenger and his admirable principles but the evidence suggests his philosophy needs tweaking.
For those who might want someone else in charge at Arsenal, they should be careful what they wish for. The Gunners do not need a new manager, just a slight change from the current one.
Spurs and Arsenal deserve huge credit for laying on a lavish feast at White Hart Lane, a carnival of positive intent, flowing football and excitement from first to last.
Arsenal were a delight in the first half but faced opponents who are also among the most pleasing on the eye in the Premier League and who finished the stronger following a free weekend.
The Gunners' boss appeared to derive only occasional pleasure from this purist's delight. Even a purist such as Wenger knows trophies have to come eventually. He is now looking at the sharp end of six seasons without success - unless there is a late twist.
Arsenal arrived at White Hart Lane knowing victory was imperative but produced a performance full of the good and bad that has come to characterise them.
For a team carrying the wounds from a Liverpool equaliser so late in the day on Sunday that it almost carried over into Monday, Arsenal were breathtaking in the first 45 minutes. Cesc Fabregas ran midfield with Samir Nasri, while the speed of Theo Walcott and thrust of Robin van Persie offered an added dimension.
Walcott, Nasri and Van Persie were all on target - but this fine work was undone by the strain of frailty that runs through this Arsenal side and which Wenger has failed to address.
Rafael van der Vaart cancelled out Walcott's opener then scored the 70th-minute penalty that rounded things off but the goal from Tom Huddlestone was the one that really drove a wedge between Arsenal and their title aspirations.
Leading 3-1 and with half-time approaching, the outcome may well have been different had Arsenal survived until the interval. Instead, sloppy work gave Huddlestone the opportunity to find the net with a thunderous strike - and Arsenal were left exposed.
A breathtaking second half ended with honours and the score even but it was Spurs who were more satisfied at the end. They had a point that keeps them in the hunt for the Champions League. Arsenal had a point that is likely to be less than they required.
Wenger praised his team under what he feels is the weight of media criticism, saying: "I don't know any team that has been hammered like us for the last two months who would have turned up with such an attitude."
Nasri scored Arsenal's second goal. Photo: Getty Images
The siege mentality is a predictable default position but Wenger requires a trophy to satisfy those he sees as Arsenal's critics. No-one ever won silverware armed only with a set of newspaper cuttings. Success is the best reply he can give.
He may still do it this season, remembering its unpredictability, but the odds are now against him. What he witnessed again at Spurs will tell him that Arsenal still require greater authority in central defence and midfield to cure their ills.
Wenger looks to have a keeper of stature in Wojciech Szczesny, who had an eventful evening but showed rich potential with fine saves and a legitimate show of bravery and decisiveness that effectively ended Gareth Bale's involvement after 45 minutes.
For Spurs, cut apart with regularity in the first half and threatened throughout, this represented a point gained. In Van der Vaart and Luka Modric, they had players fit to stand comparison with Nasri and Fabregas on Wednesday.
Van der Vaart was back to his early-season best, while diminutive Croatian Modric was on the receiving end of heavy physical attention but was still able to show the appreciation and awareness that makes him such an outstanding performer.
After Tottenham's victory at Arsenal earlier this season, Redknapp announced his side could be regarded as serious title contenders. This has not come to pass but Spurs have the squad and the capacity to be regular top-four contenders.
A share of the points was the right conclusion, although Wenger clearly felt a Van Persie strike ruled out when the score was 3-2 should have stood.
The season may yet hold one last twist - it has been that type of campaign - but the twist at White Hart Lane may well be the one that finally snuffed out Arsenal's title chances.