It is a proud old tradition at Arsenal and one that required the intervention of young Theo Walcott to protect it last night. In front of Fabio Capello, the 18-year-old scored the equaliser that saved Arsenal's eight-year unbeaten streak against Tottenham and set up a thrilling finale to this Carling Cup semi-final.
Walcott to the rescue but Arsenal were given an almighty scare last night that they will not forget before this tie is decided at White Hart Lane on 22 January. Tottenham simply cannot break through the psychological barrier that prevents them from beating their illustrious neighbours. They were in the lead through Jermaine Jenas's goal and in control before the old insecurities conspired to throw away a win that they thoroughly deserved.
This was Arsenal's B-team, the Carling Cup "Lite" version which did not include a single starting player from the XI who started in the win over Spurs at the Emirates on 22 December – but none of that would not have mattered to the visiting fans had Juande Ramos's men held on for the win. It was November 1999 that Spurs last beat Arsenal and almost 15 years since they beat their rivals away from home. Seven managers have come and gone since then and Ramos came closer to beating Arsenal than any of them.
In the first half we were treated to a virtuoso 15 minutes from the demon Berba himself – the incomparable Dimitar Berbatov. His touch and passing were the moments of greatest quality in the game but his flame flickered only too briefly. More enduring was the hard graft of the excellent Jenas and Jamie O'Hara in the centre of midfield who dominated Arsenal's Brazilian pairing of Denilson and Gilberto Silva from start to finish.
In the Spurs goal a shock choice: Paul Robinson was dropped in favour of Radek Cerny. Robinson was a forlorn figure on the bench. The writing seems to be on the wall for him at Spurs; dropped for England and now cast out by Ramos.
Cerny acquitted himself well; there were no Scott Carson-esque blunders from this man. He made a brilliant save from Niklas Bendtner's header after a sweet ball from Robin Van Persie out to the right for Justin Hoyte to cross.
How did Ramos stop Wenger's young guns when so many have failed to do so in this competition? Certainly Van Persie, starting his first game since 12 December, looked short of his best and was substituted at half-time. Gilberto played as if he could not get out of Arsenal quick enough.
For all the talent in this young Arsenal team, none of them can yet compare to Berbatov. When he feels like really playing he is a joy to watch: one moment he was disdainfully ignoring the game in favour of putting his gloves on, the next he was passing through the Arsenal defence at will. First up was a peerless through-ball to Robbie Keane on 32 minutes. He was tackled by Senderos and Steed Malbranque poked the loose ball wide.
Then another insouciant pass with the outside of Berbatov's boot to Keane that the striker retrieved and crossed. A shot from the Bulgarian striker was saved by Cerny. And on 36 minutes Berbatov made Spurs' goal. Senderos watched in horror as Berbatov took one touch to send a loose ball straight through a square Arsenal defence. Running on to it, Keane generously cut the ball back for Jenas to tap in.
The equaliser was fortuitous in its execution. Walcott broke through on 79 minutes and, as he shaped to shoot, was tackled by Lee Young-Pyo, who struck the ball against Walcott's chest and it ricocheted past Cerny. In the closing stages, substitute Jermain Defoe had a glorious chance to win the game for Spurs but struck his shot over the bar.
Wenger has a big decision to make in 13 days: does he risk the kids again with this semi-final on a knife-edge? Last season he brought out the big names against Spurs in the Carling Cup semi-final and at White Hart Lane it will be tempting to do the same. Tottenham demonstrated last night that they will not be brushed aside so easily.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Fabianski; J Hoyte, Djourou (Sagna, h-t), Senderos, Traoré; Walcott (Randall, 90), Denilson, Gilberto, Diaby; Van Persie (Eduardo, h-t), Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), G Hoyte.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Cerny; Chimbonda, Dawson, King, Lee; Lennon, Jenas, O'Hara, Malbranque (Boateng, 75); Berbatov, Keane (Defoe, 84). Substitutes not used: Robinson (gk), Stalteri, Taarabt.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).Reuse content