A tale of two wingers saw Aaron Lennon inspire Tottenham to a 2-1 victory that does Arsenal plenty of favours on Sunday.
After The Gunners snatched fourth place from Aston Villa for the first time this year on Saturday, Martin O’Neill’s men knew they needed a result to keep their noses ahead in the Champions League chase.
However, close-range strikes from Jermaine Jenas and Darren Bent punctured those inflated Villa ambitions, leaving Tottenham’s North London neighbours in the driving seat despite John Carew’s late consolation.
Both Spurs goals were unmistakably inspired by the diminutive figure of Lennon, who produced the end product that Ashley Young sadly could not match on a hugely entertaining duel between England’s two brightest young wingers.
As pulses were given 15 minutes to settle down at the end of a quite effervescent first half, Tottenham fans – more than most – would have identified with Aston Villa’s pain.
Having stolen ahead through an Aaron Lennon-inspired opener, Spurs fans then watched on as Ashley Young produced a carbon copy of Lennon’s Carling Cup final performance…in short: Breathtaking build-up play followed by a frustrating final ball.
Time and again Young had makeshift right back Didier Zokora spinning in total disarray, so much so that Harry Redknapp came to the African’s rescue on 35 minutes – replacing him with the more natural Vedran Corluka.
Ahead of that, we had witnessed half an hour of sheer Villa pressure…although disappointingly for Martin O’Neill’s men they were playing nearly the entire game with a one-goal handicap... the last thing the Ulsterman wanted to be doing against a manager has has only overcome once in 14 games.
Just four minutes had elapsed when Lennon, so predictable yet largely unstoppable, used his trademark drop of the shoulder to gain half a yard on Luke Young, where his wicked cross was pushed directly into the path of Jenas by Brad Friedel. Jenas couldn’t miss.
Time for Villa to ping the ball out to Young at will, mostly through the heartbeat of Gareth Barry, and twice they could have been level inside the opening 10 minutes. First Young crossed left-footed for Emile Heskey to stab wide, and then he rolled his foot over the ball tight to the byline to again befuddle Zokora – Barry this time foiled by Heurelho Gomes.
A huge penalty shout followed as Lennon brushed into Barry but ref Steve Bennett was having none of it – rightly so.
Still Zokora was looking like a surgeon without a knife as Young embarrassed the Ivorian twice more but, much like Lennon at Wembley, the final ball was found wanting from the Villa man.
Redknapp had seen enough, hooking the hopeless Zokora for the more collected Corluka, yet it was Tottenham’s other Croatian who should have made the more immediate impact – Modric bursting onto Jenas’ clever outside-of-the-boot pass before opting to shoot when he should have squared for either Keane or Bent.
A goal seemed inevitable, no matter which end it arrived at, yet the score remained 1-0 as Heskey’s towering header rebounded off the stanchion on the stroke of half time.
Time for Lennon to make his second telling impact.
Driving in at pace from the right just five minutes into the second half, the England man caused panic in the Villa defence as Wilson Palacios forced a parry from the unconvincing Friedel. The ball still loose, Keane reacted first to slide towards the far corner…where Bent poked home on the line – stealing his 10th goal of the season from his strike partner. Tottenham cared little…2-0.
If Fabio Capello wasn’t watching Lennon’s virtuoso display…he simply wasn’t doing his job. The little man was behind nearly everything Spurs offered, sparking a marvellous 10-minute spell after the break that nearly saw him bag a goal-of-the-season contender, shaving the bar with a 20-yard exorcet missile.
Tottenham were in the ascendency and they could have put the game to bed as Modric smashed towards goal from the edge of the box…Friedel this time doing what he should have done with Palacios’ effort – palming the ball well clear of danger.
Time for O’Neill to turn to plan B, which roughly translates as the footballing equivalent of the Hail Mary in American Football. Villa went direct, John Carew replaced Zat Knight, and with five minutes remaining a goal arrived – from nowhere.
With one or two Villa fans finding it hard to stay awake, Carew suddenly guaranteed a grandstand finale as he towered above Jon Woodgate to power home Milner’s high hanging cross. Game on…
Sadly for Villa, no further chances fell the way of their big front man...earning a chorus of fickle boos at the final whistle.