By Richard Clarke
Debutant Fran Merida inspired Arsenal Reserves' two-goal comeback in the second-string North London derby on Monday night.
The 16-year-old made one goal for Nacer Barazite and then scored a wonderful free-kick as Neil Banfield's side stormed back after trailing 2-0 at the interval.
A revival seemed highly unlikely in the first half as Jamie O'Hara's penalty and Simon Dawkins' opportunistic strike gave the home side a fully-merited 2-0 advantage.
However Banfield switched tactics at the interval and his youthful side responded. None more than Merida, a technically-gifted terrier who sprayed incisive passes all over the Stevenage Borough pitch.
It was an eye-catching introduction to competitive football in England.
With the first-team squad about to fly out to Hamburg for Wednesday's Champions League tie, Banfield had little experience at his disposal. He ended up choosing perhaps one of young squads ever to represent Arsenal. Four starters and the entire bench were 16-years-old.
There were also four full debutants. Two Dutchman - Barazite, 16, and Vincent van den Berg, 17 - were paired up front. Merida was deployed in midfield while Joe O'Cearuill, 19, slotted in at centre back alongside Ryan Garry.
Banfield moved Matthew Connolly to right back to accommodate the pair. It did not appear to affect him. In the seventh minute, the Reserve team captain executed a superb sliding tackle to dispossess Jacques Maghoma as the left winger bore down on goal.
However six minutes later Spurs went ahead when Garry tripped Jamie Davies as he tried to weave through a crowded penalty area. O'Hara scored from the spot.
Arsenal carved out their first effort in the 20th minute when Mark Randall thumped Merida's corner straight into the chest of Spurs keeper Marton Fulop.
However they handed Tottenham a second two minutes later. Under pressure from Andy Barcham, Lee Butcher could only hack Garry's pass straight to the unmarked Dawkins. The Spurs striker was left with the relatively simple task of rounding the keeper and slotting home.
It might have been worse eight minutes before half time when Barcham leapt on to Garry's error, exchanged passes Dawkins and Butcher pulled off a superb one-on-one save.
Garry nearly nodded Arsenal back into contention from Randall's free-kick just before the whistle. However Spurs were good value for their lead at half time.
Dawkins had two chances to extend Tottenham's advantage, and surely kill the game, at the start of the second half. But there was renewed urgency about Arsenal. In the 50th minute, Merida spotted Barazite roaring down the left. The Spaniard's 40-yard pass was perfect. The Dutchman cut inside his marker and curled home a well-crafted strike.
It was the goal the game needed. Jay Simpson, who had been pushed up front, was posing problems for the home defence. Meanwhile Randall and the busy Merida began passing with greater confidence.
Barcham nodded a glorious chance over the bar in the 57th minute but, in the main, the pendulum had swung Arsenal's way.
In the 64th minute, Charlie Lee felled Simpson 25 yards out and Merida curled a sumptuous free-kick over the wall and into the far corner of the net.
The comeback was nearly complete four minutes later when Merida's half-volley from midfield sent Simpson sprinting clear. The Londoner's shot was half-saved by Fulop and Leigh Mills hacked the ball away from under his own bar.
Both sides were now going for the winner. Spurs substitute Tomas Pekhart nodded a swirling cross into the arms of Butcher, Efrem cut in from the right and fired over the bar.
With two minutes left, Merida sent Simpson clear again. This time the striker miscued horribly.
Despite such a sterling first-half display, Spurs might feel slightly fortunate to have gained a point this evening.
Arsenal TV Online subscribers will be able to see video highlights of the game on Tuesday.
- Connolly Yellow Card
- Traore 76 Yellow Card
- Simpson Yellow Card
- Efrem Yellow Card
- Berg 82
- Merida Goal! Yellow Card
- Randall Yellow Card
- Barazite 82 Goal!
- Lansbury 82
- Rodgers 76
- Ogogo 82