Son Heung-min and the agonising moment Arsenal (probably) lost the title | OneFootball

Son Heung-min and the agonising moment Arsenal (probably) lost the title | OneFootball

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The Independent

·15 May 2024

Son Heung-min and the agonising moment Arsenal (probably) lost the title

Article image:Son Heung-min and the agonising moment Arsenal (probably) lost the title

Everyone could see what was coming – everyone, that is, except for Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji. The isolated Akanji took a touch on the halfway line, then greedily took another, and before Ruben Dias could say “man on” he’d been sacked by a foraging Brennan Johnson.

Akanji stumbled, Johnson collapsed in a heap and the ball bounced forwards into no man’s land. Son Heung-min rushed on to it and bore down on goal, and suddenly we all knew that this was going to be it: the season-writing, history-wrecking, universe-ripping moment. If Son scored he would hand Arsenal the keys to the title race; if he didn’t, Manchester City would lock the doors and Arsenal’s 20-year wait would go on.

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As Tottenham’s captain sized up City’s goal, Johnson watched helplessly from his backside. On the sideline, so did Pep Guardiola. The City manager put his hands on his head and squatted into a ball of despair, squinting, willing his entire year’s work not to leap into a bonfire in front of eyes.

In that moment, Guardiola was everyone. He was the Arsenal fan leaning forwards, gripping their chair and shouting at the screen. He was the City fan sinking and shrinking, who couldn’t bear to look but couldn’t look away. He was the Tottenham fan pierced through the heart by their own weird dichotomy.

And in those fleeting seconds between Akanji losing the ball and Son taking a shot, the time was filled with flashbacks of football’s big little moments: of Demba Ba racing through, of Kelechi Iheanacho scuffing wide, of Thomas Muller’s shot whistling past the post while Raheem Sterling swallowed his heart.

Son’s chance was missed as much as it was saved. Ortega thrust out a telepathic leg, guessing the right way. But Son didn’t strike the ball cleanly and it rolled towards the goalkeeper without conviction, trundling along without a mission, like a man who’d forgotten why he went upstairs.

It was an odd quirk that it should be Ortega in goal. Ederson had been injured in a horrible clash with Cristian Romero and was reluctantly removed from play. So, for all City’s riches, their fate lay in the lap of a 31-year-old German man who had never played for his country, who had signed from Arminia Bielefeld on a free transfer on the word of City’s goalkeeper coach Xabier Mancisidor. He is perhaps the only player in the squad who could wander through Manchester undisturbed.

Even before the full-time whistle had blown, Kyle Walker was patting Ortega aggressively on the head and Dias was kissing his temples, their knight in fluorescent green armour, who had saved crucially from Dejan Kulusevski too, in a vital 21-minute cameo which earned him player of the match.

“Ortega saves the actions, otherwise Arsenal are champions, that is the reality,” said Guardiola.

“The margins are so tight. Stefan makes an incredible save. He has this talent, one v one he is one of the best keepers I’ve seen in my entire life. He has the German culture: stand up, don’t go down. Since I arrive, in the FA Cup and Carabao Cups [he has shone]. Ederson has had four injuries [this season]. Stefan is so reliable, an incredible keeper. Our keeper trainer made an incredible decision to sign him.”

Even so, Guardiola admitted that he feared the worst when Son ran through on goal. Son is a statistical freak in that he regularly and reliably exceeds his expected goals, meaning his finishing is ruthlessly effective. So many of his Tottenham goals have arrived just like this chance, rushing behind a slack defence.

“You know how many times Son has punished us the last seven or eight years, how many goals they score with Harry Kane,” said Guardiola. “Oh my god.”

But Son missed, and a few minutes later Spurs fans were dancing the Poznan. City still have to beat West Ham at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, and football has an endless capacity to surprise. Arsenal fans will pray and dream and kindle embers of hope, but the reality is that while Manchester City Council has been planning a trophy parade, West Ham’s players have been booking their summer holidays.

So Arsenal’s long wait for a title will surely go on. And perhaps in football’s curious way, for all his goals and match-winning moments, it was a miss that will forever enshrine Son in Tottenham folklore.

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