Arsenal slipped to defeat in a passionate and pulsating north London derby on Sunday.

The visitors were the better side for the first half-hour but they were stung by two goals inside three minutes just before the break - the first from Gareth Bale, the second from Aaron Lennon.

Per Mertesacker grabbed a lifeline six minutes into the second half when he steered home a header from Theo Walcott’s free-kick.

Both sides tore into their task for the remainder of this enthralling game. There were chances aplenty; Messers Bale, Defoe, Ramsey, Walcott, Monreal, Sigurdsson all went close.

At the end, Tottenham were defending deeply and desperately but Arsenal could not breakthrough. The result leaves Wenger’s men five points adrift of fourth-place Chelsea while the gap to Tottenham is seven.

It was a disappointing day for anyone from the red half of north London. However there is still time to bridge the gap.

Arsenal must fight on.

Before kick-off, Arsène Wenger had been waiting on Abou Diaby, who had gone off with a calf injury against Aston Villa last weekend. In the end, the Frenchman midfielder failed his fitness test. His replacement was Aaron Ramsey.

Otherwise the team was unchanged for a derby that had taken on a huge significance. Arsenal were chasing Tottenham for a place in the top and the crown as north London’s top team. In his 16 years in charge, Wenger had not failed in either aspect.

Both sides came into the game with a strong set of Premier League results behind them but perhaps the home side were seen as having the edge in form.

For the first half-hour, this game would suggest it was the other way around.

As ever, the start was frenetic but once it settled, Arsenal had a distinct edge.

Wenger’s men were creative and cunning, finding angles and opportunities despite a lack of space typical in these games.

In the 10th minute, Santi Cazorla’s raking ball was controlled instantaneously by Olivier Giroud but, with only Hugo Lloris to beat, the Arsenal striker could not get his shot away as Jan Vertonghen slid in.

Chances were precious. Walcott had a go and Carl Jenkinson’s cross-cum-shot tested Lloris. However, despite Arsenal’s pressure they were not creating anything clear-cut.

Still Tottenham were doing less. As half-time approached, they had nothing to show for their efforts.

Unfortunately that would all change.

In the 37th minute, Gylfi Sigurdsson sent Bale through the middle and the Welshman clipped a shot past Szczesny. The Arsenal defence appealed for offside but replays proved that the Tottenham midfielder was onside.

Worse was to follow.

Two minutes later, Scott Parker nudged Lennon through the middle and he rounded Szczesny to slot home. In the build up, Sigurdsson had injured Cazorla and the Spaniard was laying injured in the centre circle when the goal went in.

However, in truth, Arsenal had lost concentration at a crucial time and trailed 2-0 when they had played much better than that.

They needed an early goal after half-time and got one six minutes in.

Ramsey was fouled on the left-hand side. Walcott swung it to the near post where Mertesacker slid home a header. It was the German’s second of the season. The other had come in the north London derby at Emirates.

Suddenly it was a different game. Monreal drove wide and Lloris spilled Jenkinson’s near-post cross momentarily.

But Spurs were continuing to attack themselves. Just before the hour, Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s flash crossing for blazed over the bar by Bale at the far post.

Both sides made significant substitutions – Tomas Rosicky for Jenkinson, Jermain Defoe for Adebayor. The former pushed Ramsey to right back. The latter would have an immediate impact.

In the 69th minute, he flicked Sigurdsson through but, inexplicably, he crossed rather than try to flick the ball past the advancing Szczesny. A minute later, Defoe drove an effort inches wide of the far post.

Bale smashed a volley straight at Szczesny but, at the other end, Ramsey cracked a drive inches past the far post.

Walcott’s free-kick flew inches wide and, in injury time, Lukas Podolski saw a goalbound shot deflect wide.

Arsenal threw everything at Tottenham in the final stages, including keeper Szczesny.

However the home side held on.

Arsenal

1
Szczesny
4
Mertesacker Goal!
5
Vermaelen (C)
25
Jenkinson 60
18
Monreal
10
Wilshere
16
Ramsey Yellow Card
8
Arteta 77
12
Giroud
19
Cazorla
14
Walcott

Substitutes

34
Coquelin
9
Podolski 77
27
Gervinho
6
Koscielny
15
Oxlade-Chamberlain
25
Mannone
7
Rosicky 60

Tottenham Hotspur

25
Lloris
5
Vertonghen Yellow Card
2
Walker Yellow Card
32
Assou-Ekotto
20
Dawson
19
Dembele 88
7
Lennon 90 Goal!
28
Parker
11
Bale Goal!
22
Sigurdsson
10
Adebayor 66 Yellow Card

Substitutes

13
Gallas 90
18
Defoe 66
24
Friedel
14
Livermore 88
16
Naughton
14
Holtby
Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source Richard Clarke 3 Mar 2013