LONDON, Feb 27 – However bad it was before and however bad it gets after, Arsenal fans will always have yesterday’s astonishing 5-2 Premier League win over Tottenham Hotspur to cheer them through the aftermath of what looks like being yet another trophyless season.
The club’s victory over their north London rivals having gone 2-0 down in the first 34 minutes is likely to be considered the pinnacle of their season and will have done much to bring supporters back onside following criticism of manager Arsene Wenger and his players.
Under fire from all quarters in the wake of some heavy defeats and abject performances, Wenger summoned the spirit of Mark Twain’s “this report of my death was an exaggeration” when facing a media who had been savaging him in recent weeks.
“Arsenal are alive more than anybody thought before the game,” Wenger said. “We had a great spirit.”
Leading the on-pitch resuscitation was Theo Walcott, who having under-performed for much of the season looked out of touch again in the early stages yesterday and was heckled by own fans before scoring two goals in three minutes.
“The crowd was starting to get on his back and you wonder if (it would not) do him a favour by leaving him on. But I felt that he has the qualities that, considering the rest of the team, are highly needed,” said Wenger.
“He is a very direct player, he can sometimes miss a first touch but considering the balance of the team, I thought it was important to keep him in the side.”
Arsenal went into the match lacking form and confidence after a 4-0 first-leg defeat at AC Milan in the Champions League and a 2-0 loss at Sunderland in the FA Cup left them facing a seventh successive season without a trophy.
It was a far cry from Wenger’s glory years when he won seven trophies in his first nine years, including the league and Cup Double in 1998 and 2002.
Former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, working as a television pundit, said during the Sunderland game that it was the worst Arsenal team he had ever watched.
VAN PERSIE WORRY
Criticism of the side also came from closer to home, with ex-players Lee Dixon, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit wading in and the Arsenal supporters’ trust asking questions about the club’s transfer policy, or lack of one.
“I feel they (the players) lost their motivation. I even fear that some have lost faith in Arsene,” former midfielder Petit, part of the vintage 1997-98 Double-winning side, told France Football magazine last week.
“Ninety five per cent of the players can do better.”
Victory over Tottenham may have given Wenger and his players some breathing space but they still have plenty to contend with.
Arsenal are fourth, in the final Champions League spot, but hold it from Chelsea by virtue of goals scored with both clubs on 46 points – 17 adrift of leaders Manchester City.
They will probably finish behind Tottenham, who are third on 53, for the first time since 1995.
Angry shareholders from the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust want to know if money is available for Wenger to strengthen the squad or whether the club is holding back money as a contingency for failing to qualify for the Champions League next season.
But perhaps, the most pressing issue is the future of captain Robin van Persie.
The Arsenal talisman, the league’s top scorer with 23 this term, announced in yesterday’s matchday programme that he has put talks over a new contract on hold until the end of the season.
His deal expires in 2013 and the Dutchman, who was again superb yesterday, has been linked with a move in the media after eight years at the club.
During Arsenal’s erratic season, Van Persie’s scoring ability has been the one thing Wenger has been able to rely on. – Reuters