By Richard Clarke
Theo Walcott bundled home a late equaliser to preserve Arsenal's proud unbeaten record against Tottenham and set up a mouthwatering second leg to the Carling Cup Semi-Final.
Arsène Wenger's run of 20 North London derbies without defeat looked under serious threat for much of tonight.
Tottenham bossed the latter stages of the first half and deservedly grabbed the lead when Jermaine Jenas slotted home eight minutes before the break. Arsenal were disjointed and, although they improved after the break, they were staring at their first home defeat to their neighbours since May 1993 before the equaliser emerged with 11 minutes to go.
Eduardo sent Walcott clear and Lee Young-Pyo's attempted challenge saw the ball ricochet off the England winger and past Radek Cerny. Emirates erupted with relief as much as anything.
Make no mistake, this was not the type of performance we are used to from the youngsters in this competition and they will have to improve markedly if they want to go through after the second leg on January 22.
However they are still in the tie and, just perhaps, still hold a psychological edge over their traditional rivals.
Certainly, given the nature and timing of the equaliser, Tottenham will be a worried side at White Hart Lane.
It was perhaps surprising to see Wenger name Robin van Persie in his starting line-up this evening. The Dutchman had just 85 minutes under his belt since October 23 because of knee and then muscular injuries. Eduardo, the star of recent Arsenal victories, made way.
Johan Djourou returned for his first appearance of the season following that loan spell at Birmingham and Theo Walcott was back after a shoulder injury. Lukasz Fabianski and Justin Hoyte also came in.
Transport problems caused a 15-minute delay to the kick-off. It did little to quell the bubbling atmosphere this evening.
Both sides could draw motivation from last season's tie at the same stage. Tottenham felt they were a much better outfit under Ramos while Arsenal's youngsters had a reputation to keep up in this competition - and a wonderful record to sustain against the old enemy.
Certainly it was Tottenham who quicker were off the blocks tonight. They created a couple of fleeting frighteners for Arsenal when Ledley King and Dimitar Berbatov momentarily went clear. But their early bluster soon fizzled out.
In the 13th minute, Walcott raced into the area and found a second of space before being swamped by Tottenham defenders.
It was the prelude to a period of Arsenal pressure. Van Persie fed Hoyte on the right and his cross was headed powerfully goalward at the near post by Bendtner. Cerny, surprisingly selected above Paul Robinson, threw himself to his left to save.
However Tottenham's fightback was severe. Senderos obstructed Berbatov on the edge of the area and Jamie O'Hara curled a low free-kick wide of the far post.
Then, just past the half-hour, Berbatov hoisted a ball forward to Robbie Keane in the area. Senderos timed a dispossessing challenge to perfection however the ball fell to Steed Malbranque. With Fabianski out of position, the Frenchman trickled a hurried shot wide of the upright.
Seconds later, Keane skipped past the onrushing Fabianski and crossed to Malbranque again at the far post. The former Fulham midfielder rose above Hoyte to nod wide.
Tottenham had now built up a head of steam and the Arsenal midfield was struggling to hold back their incessant attacks leaving the defence exposed.
It was no surprise when the visitors took the lead eight minutes before the break. Berbatov's pass put Keane clear and referee Mike Dean waved play on despite calls for offside. That left the Irishman with the relatively simple chance of sliding a sideways pass to the unmarked Jenas in the centre. His low shot past Fabianski was even more straightforward. Replays later suggested that Keane had been onside - albeit by a whisker.
As in the Premier League game between the sides in December, Tottenham's goal rattled Arsenal. Before half-time, the overworked Fabianski had to save from a low Jenas shot and Berbatov's attempted chip.
When the whistle blew for the break, few could argue with the scoreline.
Wenger made changes after the restart. Van Persie and Djourou went off, Eduardo and Bacary Sagna were the replacements. The Frenchman filled his usual position at right back and Hoyte moved into the middle of the defence.
Again Tottenham pressured at the start of the half. In the opening seconds, Fabianski spilled O'Hara's corner and Denilson had to hack the ball off the line.
Arsenal were better for the changes but Tottenham had the confidence of that goal and they were using it. But they were not creating much anymore. Keane's woeful dribbler from distance was the only effort from either side for the first 25 minutes of the half.
The home side started to sustain some pressure after that. However, had Keane controlled a relatively simple pass forward with 15 minutes to go then the lead could have been doubled.
Diaby wriggled himself into space on the edge of the area and had a goalbound shot charged down. Before that, Armand Traore had wastefully blasted over after Arsenal had won a free-kick in a promising position. It seemed that the home side were nearly spent.
Then, with a slice of good fortune, they grabbed that equaliser.
Gilberto flicked a ball forward to Eduardo in midfield. He sent Walcott sprinting through with Lee Young-Pyo in close pursuit. The Korean timed his challenge well but the ball spun up, hit the Englishman and bobbled past the onrushing Cerny.
It was one the scrappiest goals Emirates Stadium had seen. Yet, in the fans' eyes, it was perhaps one of the most important.
Tottenham could have replied five minutes later when Aaron Lennon broke forward and clipped an angled ball to substitute Jermain Defoe at the far post. It was a gilt-edged chance but the England striker shot high over the bar.
At the end of the game, the home fans sang 'you'll never beat the Arsenal'. That proud boast has now stretched to 21 games however, on the evidence of tonight, the gap is closing.
- Djourou 46
- Walcott 90 Goal!
- van Persie 46
- Sagna 46
- Randall 90
- Eduardo 46
- Malbranque 77
- Jenas Goal!
- Keane 83
- Boateng 77
- Defoe 83