As it is the North London derby this weekend, I am going to pick some random North London Derbies to talk write about, it may only be two or three, but I thought it would be a relevant feature given the next North London derby is just a few days away.
So, cast your mind back to the 2004/05 season. Going into the campaign, Arsenal were the defending champions. Not only were they the defending champions, they had won the league by going the entire season unbeaten. So they had an unbeaten record to catch. Nottingham Forest had set the previous record at 42 games without defeat in the late 1970′s. Arsenal started the 2004/05 season at 40, 2 from the 2002/03 campaign and of course 38 from the 2003/04 season. After breezing past Everton on the opening day of the season, Arsenal survived a scare at home to Middlesbrough to equal the record of 42. They then comfortably saw off Blackburn to make it 43 unbeaten. Having broken the record, it was a question of how much longer could the team remain unbeaten?. The answer was not very long. In October 2004, the Gunners lost 2-0 at Manchester United in controversial fashion, ending the unbeaten run.
Arsenal’s form unsurprisingly dipped having been unbeaten for so long. In the weeks following the Old Trafford defeat, the Gunners drew three games. A last minute equaliser from a young Robin Van Persie spared the Gunners blushes in a 2-2 draw with Southampton at Highbury and Arsenal drew 1-1 with both Crystal Palace in the league and Panathinaikos in the Champions League.
Their next opponents were Tottenham at White Hart Lane. This was the first North London Derby since the Gunners clinched the league title at the same ground in April of that year. An out of form Arsenal headed to White Hart Lane aiming to defend their great recent record against Spurs. Their last defeat to their local rivals was back in November 1999. The rivalry had become even fiercer when Sol Campbell made the move to Arsenal on a free transfer in 2001, but on the field their was no competition at the time. Arsenal kept on filling up the trophy cabinet at the time whilst Spurs struggled to have success in anything but the League Cup.
Spurs were rocked by the shock resignation of Jacques Santini in November 2004. Martin Jol took temporary charge of the team and by the time Arsenal visited White Hart Lane he was the permanent manager. I believe I am right in saying that this was Jol’s first game in charge as permanent manager. I believe he had a game the previous week when he was just filling in due to Santini’s shock departure.
Arsenal had a weapon on the bench in case things went wrong in the derby. Robert Pires was a sub for a fixture that he absolutely loved scoring in. This was a weapon Arsene Wenger would use later in a very topsy-turvy match.
Spurs took the lead when Noureddine Naybet volleyed the ball into the ground and past Jens Lehmann. Naybet had scored for Deportivo in the Champions League at Highbury in 2001/02 as well, so two goals for a defender wasn’t a bad record!.
The champions would respond on the stroke of half time when Lauren played a delightful ball through to Thierry Henry, who controlled it well and squeezed the ball past Paul Robinson despite Tottenham’s attempts to contain him. The Frenchman didn’t do a lot in that first half, but as a lot of clubs found out during his time in England, it only takes one lapse in concentration for Thierry to punish you.
Arsenal’s timing was perfect. They scored in first half stoppage time. So… 1-1 at the break?. It must have been one hell of a second half. It was.
The visitors started the second half brightly and could have taken the lead had Jose Antonio Reyes made a better connection with Freddie Ljungberg’s cross.
Arsenal’s second goal was more down to a number of Spurs errors. Paul Robinson and Ledley King had a mix-up as the goalkeeper tried to start a Spurs attack. The loose ball came to Reyes who appeared to be fouled. Kolo Toure then played the ball to Ljungberg who took on the Spurs defence. Noe Pamarot brought the Swede down and the referee pointed to the spot.
Now at the time I recall there being some kind of unwritten rule at Arsenal that the person fouled couldn’t take the penalty. That ruled Ljungberg out. Arsenal had Henry on the pitch, Patrick Vieira and Ashley Cole too who had experience of taking spot kicks before. Another penalty taker was Robert Pires who wasn’t on the pitch. Dennis Bergkamp refused to take penalties after missing one in the FA Cup Semi-Final in 1999 so he was ruled out. The man who stepped up didn’t take a lot of penalties at that point, but he had already taken one, and scored in a North London Derby before. In April 2002, Lauren scored a late penalty to claim all three points in a 2-1 win over Tottenham at Highbury. He could put Arsenal 2-1 up here. Lauren calmly sent Robinson the wrong way to the delight of the travelling fans.
5 minutes later, Michael Brown was dispossessed by Cesc Fabregas, who knocked the ball to Dennis Bergkamp. Bergkamp tried to play in Ljungberg but his pass was intercepted. Patrick Vieira won the ball back and burst forward. All of a sudden, the Arsenal captain was through on goal. Vieira slammed the ball past Robinson to make it 3-1 to Arsenal. Surely the game was safe for Arsenal now?.
It wasn’t. Almost instantly, Jermain Defoe found the top corner of the net from range to give Spurs hope once more.
It was brief hope as less than 10 minutes later, Cesc Fabregas’ reverse ball to Ljungberg tricked the Tottenham defence and Ljungberg took his chance when he got it. 4-2 Arsenal.
SURELY now, Arsenal had put the game to bed?. No. Spurs captain Ledley King headed in from a free-kick to keep Tottenham in with a shout.
The game was getting better and better as it went on. With just under 10 minutes to go, Henry presented the ball to substitute Robert Pires who slotted the ball past Robinson from a tight angle.
If Arsenal had learnt anything, they knew not to concede again quickly. It took Spurs 7 minutes to score what turned out to be one last consolation goal. Henry gave away possession to Reto Ziegler who lofted a ball over the top of the Arsenal defence and into the path of Frederic Kanoute who set up a nervy finish for Arsenal by slotting past Lehmann.
In the end, the Gunners did hold on for a crucial 3 points. Arsenal would go on to finish 2nd in the league that season, some way off of eventual champions Chelsea, but the year ended on a high when the team won the 2005 FA Cup Final on penalties against Manchester United. That is still Arsenal’s most recent bit of silverware to date and Arsenal haven’t finished second or above since 2005.
The following season Arsenal and Tottenham began to become closer in terms of league position. Spurs very nearly finished above Arsenal in the 2005/06 campaign but were pipped to 4th on the final day by the Gunners. Since then it’s been much of the same and there have been a couple of seasons that it has come down to the final day as to who will finish above who. So far, Arsenal have maintained their fine record of finishing above Tottenham. With Gareth Bale in such fine form right now, it may well take an injury to the Welshman or a win at the weekend that has potential to harm Tottenham’s season (like the 5-2 at the Emirates last season). It will certainly be a difficult challenge to do so this year. But technically speaking, we’re in a much better position to do so this season than we were last year.