By Richard Clarke
Julio Baptista blasted two more Carling Cup goals as Arsenal produced an incredible comeback against Tottenham in the Semi-Final first leg at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night.
Arsène Wenger’s Young Guns have already won well at Everton and Liverpool in this competiton this season but were caught in a Spurs maelstrom in the opening 20 minutes tonight. Dimitar Berbatov’s header and an own goal by Julio Baptista left the visitors reeling.
However, as the senior side demonstrated on Sunday, Arsenal do not know when they are beaten. Baptista, scorer at four goals at Anfield in the last round, bulldozered through to score in the 63rd minute and then tapped home after great work from Justin Hoyte 13 minutes from time.
Given the nature of the two sides, the occasion and the opponents, it was an utterly astonishing reverse.
Having almost been knocked out in the opening rounds, Arsenal are now well ahead on points at the halfway stage of this particular fight.
If they box clever in the second leg at Emirates Stadium next week, they will secure a place in the Final against Chelsea at the Millennium Stadium on February 25
Wenger remained true to his Carling Cup principles and put out a side heavy with youth. Armand Traore, 17, Theo Walcott, 17 and Denilson, 18, all made the first XI while Mark Randall, 17, was on the bench. Abou Diaby, still only 20, started his first game since suffering a broken and dislocated ankle at Sunderland on May Day last year.
However the presence of Emmanuel Eboue, Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini on the bench suggested that Wenger was well aware a Cup Final appearance was at stake.
For their part, Tottenham were at full strength — and the first half would certainly reflect that.
Aaron Lennon and Berbatov dominated the opening stages. In the third minute the England winger skipped past Traore and Diaby only for Hoyte to hack his cross away. Almost immediately, Berbatov drove the ball into the sidenetting.
Aliadiere burst through for Arsenal allowing Fabregas and Denilson to unleash shots at goal. Both were charged down.
However by this time Tottenham had taken charge. It was no surprise to see them snatch the lead in the 12th minute. The simple nature of the goal was much more of a concern.
Defoe floated a cross from the right to the far post. It flew over Kolo Toure and an unmarked Berbatov had the simplest of headers past Manuel Alumina.
The Spanish keeper then blocked from Defoe as Spurs pushed for a second. They would only have to wait until the 19th minute.
This time the ball came from the left. Tom Huddlestone fired at free-kick low to the near post, Michael Dawson jumped over the ball and a surprised Baptista deflected the ball past Almunia. Again it was a highly preventable goal and Arsenal’s youngsters were in danger of leaving themselves far too much to do.
However their response was rousing. And the sight of Berbatov hobbling shortly afterwards certainly helped their cause.
They began to push Tottenham back for the first sustained period in the game. However it only produced one real chance. In the 27th minute Hoyte combined well with Walcott and then Aliadiere to give himself a clear sight of goal. Dawson raced across to charge down his drive. It was a vital intervention.
Lennon was still lethal however. On the half hour Toure was booked for illegally ending his rampaging run through the middle. Steed Malbranque cracked a shot over the bar and then an unmarked Dawson missed a header from close range.
However Arsenal might have hauled themselves back into contention with the last kick of the half. But an unmarked Baptista miscued five yards out when trying to turn in a corner by Fabregas.
The visitors were invigorated at the start of the second period. They pinned Tottenham back in their half but crucially could not force Paul Robinson into action.
Wenger made changes. He brought on Eboue and Hleb for Diaby and Aliadiere in search of a goal. Walcott was switched up front. It made an immediate difference. Dawson had to nod off his own line after Senderos had beaten Robinson in the air to a free-kick from Fabregas. Baptista had a shot blocked and then a dangerous drive by Fabregas was cleared.
Arsenal snatched their lifeline in the 64th minute. Eboue cut in from the right and crossed low into the heart of the area. The ball ran loose in the area as the challenges flew in and Baptista picked himself off the floor to power past Dawson then poke the ball home.
Suddenly Arsenal were in the ascendancy. Hleb and Fabregas both had efforts blocked and Tottenham’s forays forward were becoming rare. The most dangerous they got was when Hoyte hacked clear from Defoe’s low cross.
However the Arsenal right back would make a crucial intervention at the other end in the 77th minute. Fabregas sent Hoyte clear on the right hand side. He burst to the byline and measured a cross to the far post. Baptista arrived on time to bundle the ball home.
Tottenham were not spent. Almost immediately Defoe forced a decent save from Almunia.
However, after Flamini had replaced the limping Hleb, Arsenal might well have nicked a win at the death when Walcott volleyed wide from a deep hanging cross by Fabregas
That would have been the perfect finish to the fightback.
Referee: Graham Poll
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