By Richard Clarke
Arsenal won a bruising, breathless and ultimately brilliant North London derby at Emirates Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The winner arrived 15 minutes from time when Nicklas Bendtner came off the bench to power home a close-range header with his first touch.
However that had come shortly after Manuel Almunia had prevented Tottenham taking a surprise lead by turning aside Robbie Keane's penalty.
And that had only happened after Dimitar Berbatov had expertly equalised Emmanuel Adebayor's strike three minutes into the second half.
All the action came after the break. The first period had been poor. Arsenal were not fluent and Tottenham were defending deeply.
But the second half was your typical rollercaster ride - fast, nerve-jangling, occasionally inducing a little queasiness yet wonderfully satisfying.
At the final whistle, the Arsenal players ran to Almunia. Perhaps that is the best indication of the turning point today. Make no mistake, the home side were teetering for a time.
Still Wenger's men keep on finding a way to win and this afternoon they gave their supporters a wonderful Christmas present - beating Tottenham to stay top of the Premier League.
It really doesn't get much better than this.
Wenger retained the side that had beaten Chelsea on Sunday. However Robin van Persie, a substitute against Avram Grant's side, was left out of the squad after picking up "a knock". Emmanuel Eboue started despite being stretchered off last weekend. Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Alex Hleb had all been doubt for that fixture; they kept their places for the derby.
In fact it was Tottenham who had the injury worries - particularly in defence. Three of their back four were playing out of position. Arsenal tried to exploit the weakness in the opening minutes.
Wenger's side tore forward from the first whistle. Flamini hooked an early effort into the sidenetting then, in the fourth minute, Kolo Toure stabbed a low shot at Paul Robinson from a Fabregas free-kick.
However there are signs that Juande Ramos is starting to exert a positive influence at White Hart Lane. They withstood the home pressure and, in the ninth minute, they worked a good position on the right. Only Bacary Sagna's flicked header prevented Aaron Lennon's whipped-in cross reaching Robbie Keane.
If Tottenham's aim was to keep Arsenal at bay and quieten the crowd then they succeeded in the 15 minutes that followed. Hleb probed well, Flamini ran intelligently and Adebayor's movement caused constant headaches for the visitors but Robinson was untroubled.
However, at the same time, Arsenal were forcing Tottenham to play on the back foot and therefore they created virtually nothing themselves.
In the 34th minute Adebayor held the ball up for Eboue to slide a fierce shot goalwards. Robinson threw himself to his left to save. It was the best chance of the half so far.
Before the whistle blew Spurs threatened a little. Berbatov floated a free-kick into the arms of Almunia then Kevin Prince Boateng hacked an effort over the bar following good work from Robbie Keane and Lennon on the right.
But three minutes from time Arsenal conjured up an altogether better chance. Toure met a Fabregas corner with his head and Robinson gymnastically palmed the ball aside once again.
It was a lively end to an otherwise sterile first half.
Arsenal need a spark. Their passing and invention had been strangely lacking. That, combined with Tottenham's desire to get 10 men behind the ball, was strangling the life out of this derby.
However the game changed within precisely two minutes 19 seconds of the restart. That was when Rosicky collected the ball in midfield and sent a reverse pass to Fabregas, who was scampering into the area. The Spaniard had spotted Adebayor ghosting in behind. He held off his marker and backheeled the ball into the path of the Togolese striker who slid home his 10th Premier League goal of the season.
As against Chelsea last week, Arsenal had broken the deadlock at a crucial time.
In fact the home side nearly got a double-whammy. They won possession from the kick-off and Fabregas fired over the bar.
A confident Arsenal held Tottenham captive in their own half for the five minutes which followed the goal. This would be the biggest test of the visitors' new-found confidence.
Just past the hour Eboue fired in a low cross from the right and Arsenal had a claim for a penalty when Younes Kaboul appeared to clip Rosicky.
However Tottenham were starting to stir. Lennon teased Clichy and floated a hanging cross to the far post where Robbie Keane hammered a shot against the bar. Then in the 66th minute the Irishman collected Pascal Chimbonda's long ball forward, reached the byline and backheeled the ball for Berbatov to thump his effort high into the net at the near post.
Now Tottenham had the initiative. They pressed forward and troubled Arsenal into conceding a penalty 18 minutes from time when Toure clipped Barbatov. Keane stepped up to take the spot-kick but this time it was Almunia who pulled off a low save to his right.
It was now an end-to-end game. The midfield was just a mirage and both sides were attacking at will. With 15 minutes left both side made attacking substitutions - Bendtner for Eboue, Jermain Defoe for Keane.
Tottenham had not seen the big Dane before so perhaps that was the reason they left him completely unmarked from a Fabregas corner and, with his first touch, Bendtner powered home a header from close-range.
What a way to introduce yourself to a North London derby.
Bendtner nearly set-up Adebayor for the third but the African was muscled out as he raced through the middle. Tottenham's main threat in the final stages was substitute Adel Taarabt but his trickery had no end-product.
Arsenal deservedly held on to their victory and their lead of the Premier League.
- Eboue 74
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Hleb 80
- Adebayor Goal!
- Silva 80
- Bendtner 74 Goal!
- Lee 79
- Tainio Yellow Card
- Boateng 60 Yellow Card
- Berbatov Goal! Yellow Card
- Keane 74
- Taarabt 79
- Huddlestone 60
- Defoe 74