Wenger within touching distance

Arsenal 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1
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You are Arsène Wenger, and you believe you have planned everything with precise, almost scientific, attention to detail. Absolutely nothing is left to chance. Then, after 86 minutes of a contest your Arsenal team has dominated but whose 1-0 lead has just been negated by a penalty, your side are also awarded a spot-kick.

Your first-choice taker Thierry Henry has been injured in the challenge that brought the penalty and, under the ridiculous rules that must be applied to players who have received attention, has to leave the field for a period decided by the referee and cannot take it. Anyway, he has missed two penalties recently against Juventus and Deportivo La Coruña. Your second choice is the Brazilian Edu, but he has been substituted three minutes earlier.

From nowhere, and uninvited, up strides the Cameroon defender, Lauren, to convert the kick. Wenger can only stand and watch. And his consternation is not yet over. As Lauren sizes the situation up, goalkeeper Kasey Keller bounces on his line to distract him, then dives to his left. Lauren strokes, or scuffs, the ball, depending upon your point of view, straight down the middle. A bit like David Beckham, without the ferocious power. If it was a tee-shot, it would have made about 10 yards.

It is either the most audacious penalty-kick under pressure, or the most comical, but agonisingly slowly for all concerned, those present here and those Manchester United and Liverpool followers listening on the radio, it crosses the line.

On such absurd quirks of fate are titles won or lost.

That frantic final 10 minutes enlivened what had been meandering towards a north London derby triumph for the Gunners. It had been something of a stroll since the moment Fredrik Ljungberg scored a 23rd-minute opener.

With nine minutes left, Gus Poyet chased the ball into the Arsenal area, went for his shot and crashed into David Seaman. After an interminable wait, the usually excellent referee Mark Halsey pointed to the spot, but with the hesitancy of a man who was not really convinced. Teddy Sheringham duly scored the kick.

You felt Halsey was a relieved man when five minutes later during a mêlée in the opposite box, Dean Richards felled Henry, and this time Halsey had fewer doubts. After lengthy treatment, the Frenchman was helped off, and could only watch.

"I nominated Thierry as my No 1, and Edu as my No 2. Lauren wasn't even on the list. But when Thierry went down, he couldn't take it, and nobody else took the ball. But Lauren picked up the ball and took the responsibility," Wenger said. Was he concerned? "I have seen so many penalties missed recently, and of course you get nervy, but I knew he had scored from the spot for Cameroon. He is a strong boy in his head." Indeed, 25-year-old Lauren netted a last-minute match-winning penalty for Cameroon in the semi-final against China in the last Olympics.

Inevitably, the rival managers could not agree about the penalty awards. "Ours looked more like a penalty than theirs," observed Wenger, to which Glenn Hoddle responded: "Our lads thought theirs was 50-50. It wasn't as blatant as ours."

What was not for dispute was that Manchester United were back in the Premiership penthouse suite for only three hours before Arsenal arrived to claim re-possession.

The contrast in attitudes between the teams on this balmy afternoon could scarcely have been more marked. Arsenal were in such imperious mood, with a Double at their mercy, while all that is visible on Tottenham's horizon is the destination of their holidays.

Before the game Dennis Bergkamp received the Premiership Player of the Month trophy. The Dutchman was soon exhibiting just why with some deft touches and then highlighted the dark side of his game when he kicked out at Tim Sherwood's shin and earned a caution.

Early in the first half, Arsenal had been edgy and too many passes went astray. The visitors, deploying a 4-4-2 formation, were coping with comfort. But as midway approached Henry, Bergkamp and Ljungberg began to look ominously threatening.

It was inevitably Bergkamp who threaded a ball through to Ljungberg for the Swede to elude Ledley King and Richards. Despite Keller's desperate efforts, the ball rolled slowly into the net.

Suddenly the temperature was raised. Sheringham was booked for a foul on Patrick Vieira, then Tim Sherwood bundled the Frenchman to the floor. Poyet had already been booked and in the second half Chris Perry became the fourth Tottenham player to see a yellow.

Spurs had been subdued but, six minutes before the break, King sent a teasing cross into the goalmouth which Sol Campbell failed to cut out. The ball ran to Sheringham, but he cleared the bar, much to the merriment of the North Bank.

Simon Davies replaced King at the interval as Spurs switched to a 3-5-2 formation. Soon afterwards, Sergei Rebrov came on for Steffen Iversen. But Arsenal had by now settled into their rhythm. A slip by Perry allowed Ljungberg to cut in from the left, but his cross-cum-shot just eluded the far post.

Then that bizarre finale, after which chaos ensued. In the last minute everyone piled in after Campbell had ducked into Sheringham's boot. The Tottenham striker rightly escaped further punishment. So did the Gunners, to their huge relief. Eight consecutive Premiership victories. They are still looking irresistible.

Arsenal 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 Ljungberg 24 Sheringham pen 81, Lauren pen 86

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 38,186

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