A disputed goal and a deflection carried Arsenal four points clear at the head of the Premiership yesterday after their nearest neighbours had threatened to add an unlikely chapter to what has been a bookful of derby-day horror stories at either end of the Seven Sisters Road for the best part of 20 years.
Bravely led by their new captain, Stephen Carr, with Kasey Keller defiant in goal and the midfield newly enlivened, Tottenham shocked the home side with Darren Anderton's early goal and held on to it until the last quarter of a vibrant game, Helder Postiga missing two excellent chances along the way.
Then Thierry Henry, possibly offside, set up an equaliser for Robert Pires, and with 11 minutes to play Freddie Ljungberg scored only his second goal of the season; the fact that the shot deflected heavily off Carr to leave the goalkeeper helpless was all the more cruel. So, after holding out hopes of a first victory on this ground since 1993, Spurs were denied even a first point here for five years.
As against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday, Arsenal won the day with dogged perseverance, as essential a requirement for championship winners on days like these as flowing football. In Ray Parlour they also had a captain, like Carr, who has come through the ranks and knows what is needed on these occasions; Lauren and Gilberto Silva, however, were badly off the pace, and only after Arsène Wenger replaced them on the hour did his team pick it up again.
"After an hour I was very concerned," the manager admitted, faced as he was with a first London derby defeat for two years. "The positive thing was that we were only one down. Some players were tired from Wednesday and their legs were not really there. But we kept going and that's the special strength of this team. Tottenham played very well and can feel hard done by."
They did, as their acting manager, David Pleat, confirmed minutes later. "It was hard to take," he said. "You have to get the balance right when you come here, but we didn't play on the back foot. We could have had three by half-time and their back-four were really rocking. We were solid but also more creative today."
Anderton and Gus Poyet, having been ponderously ineffective as a central-midfield partnership against Bolton, were switched around: the former England international was shunted out to the right wing, with Stéphane Dalmat coming in to help out Ledley King in the middle. Pleat's reward for the reshuffle, in which Poyet, Gary Doherty and Bobby Zamora were all dropped, was a goal in the first five minutes. King, though nominally a defensive shield, was far enough forward to feed Robbie Keane, who was blessed with a fortunate ricochet as he attempted to force a way through. The ball broke to the edge of the six-yard box, where Anderton materialised ahead of Ashley Cole to dink it cleverly wide of Jens Lehmann.
The rest of the first half turned - with two notable exceptions - into a contest between Keller and Henry. In the 12th minute the latter juggled a nod-down from Kanu and half-volleyed spectacularly from 30 yards, the goalkeeper saving at the expense of a corner and then repeating the feat from the Frenchman's low drive. A free-kick moved forward to the edge of the penalty area as punishment after the Spurs defence encroached brought the next opportunity, which Henry curled on to the roof of the net. Pires also tested Keller with a slashed cross-shot to the near post and found him up to the task.
Astonishingly, however, the best two opportunities fell to the visitors' young £6.5m striker Postiga. On each occasion he was sent clear by dreadful back-passes from Lauren; the first time a poor effort went no further than the outstretched foot of Lehmann, who was upset at a careless follow-through that caught him painfully on the thigh. For the second chance, Postiga managed a better contact, the German saving with his left hand to prevent an even more disconcerting half-time score.
Spurs also led on bookings, by three (Anderton, Paul Konchesky and Dean Richards) to one (Parlour), though Henry demonstrated exemplary spirit in getting to his feet immediately when clattered by Richards and later Keller, who would have been sent off for his challenge outside the penalty area had the whistle not already gone for offside.
Apart from Mauricio Taricco receiving a yellow card, the second half began as encouragingly for Tottenham as the first had. King infiltrated his way in from the left, and it required a smart interception from Sol Campbell to deny his old club. Wenger waited only until the hour-mark before making changes, replacing Lauren and Gilberto with Pascal Cygan and Dennis Bergkamp.
Kolo Touré moved to right-back and had to drive forward to help Arsenal regain the initiative, while Bergkamp sat in midfield trying to open up a resolute visiting defence. When the equaliser came in the 69th minute, that defence appeared to commit suicide by pushing up to play Henry offside. The flag stayed down, and although Keller parried the shot, Pires followed up for a jubilant tap-in.
As the home crowd scented blood, it was Pleat's turn for a tactical response, sending on the South African captain, Mbulelo Mabizela, for Konchesky, with Dalmat moving out to the flank. Neither could do anything to stop Kanu striding through the middle and setting up the lucky winning goal with 11 minutes to play. He fed Ljungberg, who cut inside on to his favourite right foot and saw the shot loop off Carr and over the stranded Keller. It was bitterly hard luck on Spurs in general and those two players in particular.
"The spirit in the group is good, as is their respect for each other," said Pleat, adding of Postiga, "The Postman", who had failed to deliver: "Strikers have to remain optimistic." Like Tottenham Hotspur supporters.
Arsenal 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1
Pires 69, Ljungberg 79; Anderton 5
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 38,101Reuse content