Arsenal 2, Tottenham Hotspur 1: St Nicklas' presence ensures Christmas No 1 for Gunners

Spurs pay penalty for spot-kick miss as Bendtner scores with first touch to keep Arsenal top
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The Independent Online

Juande he may win a north London derby; but do not bank on it. In taking on Arsenal for the first time yesterday Tottenham's new manager, Juande Ramos, went the way of his numerous predecessors, albeit after a bettereffort than normal. Indeed, at the moment that Robbie Keane put the ball on the penalty spot with the scores level and 24 minutes to play, the Spaniard must have fancied his chances of loosening the grip that Arsne Wenger has exerted over this fixture in remaining unbeaten since 1999.

Instead, Manuel Almunia kept out Keane's shot, and two minutes later Nicklas Bendtner ran straight from the substitutes' bench to head the winning goal from a corner with his first touch.

That bitter disappointment apart, there was encouragement for the new manager, losingfor only the second time in 12 matches since replacing Martin Jol. The moribund nature of the first-half football suited his team, who limited the home side to only a couple of chances. But after Wenger's equivalent of the half-time hairdryer perhaps one of those Gallic glares a derby match broke out.

So Arsenal will spend Christmas on top of the tree following their best start to a Premier League season, something that only Wenger and a few loyalists believed possible back in August. "We have 43 points, so we are in a very strong position," he said. "At the start of the season I thought it was possible, but when I listened to the radio and television I thought I must be crazy."

Improbably, the loss of ThierryHenry has proved beneficial, allowing youngsters such as Cesc Fabregas to take more responsibility; the back four have been outstanding; and Emmanuel Adebayor has come on well, though in home games against a massed defence he ideally needs asecond striker alongside him.

Tottenham, missing so many defenders, understandably sought safety in numbers, which helped explain the poverty of the first 45 minutes. Paul Robinson made good saves from Emmanuel Ebou and Kolo Tour, but Teemu Tainio's unfamiliarity with the right-back position threatened to be costly.

Sure enough, three minutes into the second half he was sucked into the centre, leaving Adebayor unmarked to take a typically imaginative back-heel from Fabregas and score his 10th goal of the season. A Dimitar Berbatov free-kick straight atAlmunia and Kevin-Prince Boateng's curling shot were all that Spurs had offered offensively, but they responded well when forced to come out and play a more natural game. Jamie O'Hara, a 21-year-old from Dartford coveted by the Republic of Ireland, was a confident deputy for the suspended Didier Zokora in midfield and Aaron Lennon, the only other English outfield player on the pitch, at last started beating Gaël Clichy.

When Lennon checked back on his left foot and crossed to the far post, an unmarked Keane volleyed against the bar. That was the first lapse of the game by Tour, who immediately failed to prevent Keane turning the ball back for Berbatov to drive high into the net from a sharp angle.

Tottenham supporters growing accustomed to suffering as badly at the Emirates as at Highbury could hardly believe the change of fortune when the Bulgarian striker then tumbled under Tour's challenge. Keane, having scored from his last 10 penalties, saw Almunia guess correctlyand save with his right hand. Eat your heart out, Jens Lehmann, who has been so publicly scornful of his goalkeeping rival and will have to leave the Emirates now if he wants to achieve his ambition of appearing for Germany at the Euro 2008 finals.

The game had turned. Bendtner, 20 next month, lost his marker on the way to meeting Fabregas's corner and heading Arsenal towards a very happy Christmas. At the final whistle, their followers joined in the seasonal chorus of "Look to the future now/It's only just begun." For Wenger's youngsters that is quite certainly the case.

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