Tottenham Hotspur’s hopes of gatecrashing the English Premier League’s established elite were put back into perspective on Saturday as they slumped to a chastening 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.
Arsene Wenger’s side maintained their vice-like grip on north London supremacy thanks to two goals in the space of 60 frantic seconds in the first-half from Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas as Spurs missed the chance to leapfrog Arsenal, who started the weekend third in the table.
Van Persie then completed his double in the second period at the Emirates Stadium to ensure Arsenal’s unbeaten run against their near neighbours now stands at 20 league games.
It was a horrible afternoon for Spurs, not least because Arsenal never even approached their best form. The bald truth is that they did not have to, with all three goals stemming from the kind of atrocious defending which used to be Tottenham’s hallmark.
The visitors might now rue their bold words in the build-up to this tussle, which had seen their captain Robbie Keane claim that Spurs boasted the stronger squad and Harry Redknapp suggesting Arsenal lacked the nous to win the title.
Still, at least Tottenham can console themselves in the knowledge that they were not undone by an inferiority complex.
For 43 minutes, at least, Tottenham displayed a rugged attitude.
Deprived of three of his star forwards – Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric – through injury and suspension, Redknapp decided to place his side in cautious, rather than cavalier, mode, deploying the sturdier Jermaine Jenas in a robust five-man midfield.
The net effect was to slash space to a premium, disrupting the spectacle but allowing Spurs to cut Arsenal’s incisive attacking thrusts off at source.
What few chances there were came from mistakes or plain bad luck, as in the 21st minute when Andrey Arshavin’s shot deflected to Fabregas and the Spaniard’s low drive was well saved by Gomes.
That, however, was a rare moment of drama and the half appeared to be dwindling to its inevitable goalless conclusion when, with two minutes remaining, Spurs inexplicably imploded.
A routine cross from Bacary Sagna was allowed to worm into the area and van Persie, having muscled in front of Ledley King, poked into the bottom corner.
Arsenal’s players duly wheeled away, in shock as much anything else, but the drama was not over yet.
After a befuddled Wilson Palacios allowed the ball to squirm away from him from the re-start, Fabregas scooped up possession, waltzed between Palacios and Tom Huddlestone, skipped past King and swept regally past a bewildered Gomes.
Redknapp looked crestfallen on the sidelines, his carefully laid plans shredded in the space of less than 60 seconds, and his team still appeared groggy when they re-emerged for the second half.
Arsenal were twice denied by fine blocks, with Sebastien Bassong saving Abou Diaby’s drive on the goal-line after van Persie had made mincemeat of the increasingly hapless King and Gomes smothering bravely at the feet of Eduardo.
That briefly handed Spurs some belief and David Bentley forced a save from Manuel Almunia with a curling free-kick.
But, ultimately, there was no holding back the red tide and, on the hour, Arsenal were gifted a third goal with more abysmal defending.
It was bad enough that Spurs’ players stopped after Benoit Assou-Ekotto fouled Eduardo, rather than heeding referee Mark Clattenburg’s advantage, a gaffe that allowed Sagna to break clear.
Gomes then compounded the error by allowing the defender’s cross to slip through his fingers and van Persie side-footed home.
The game won, Arsenal switched to cruise control. They should have added a fourth when Eduardo sprang the offside trap and confronted Gomes, who had rashly raced out of his goal, only to roll tamely wide of the post, but it hardly mattered.