Several times over the last eight years, Tottenham have had victory against Arsenal within their grasp, only to let it slip away in the late stages.
History repeated itself at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night, as Tottenham took a first-half lead, only to see Arsenal nick a goal in the late stages again and earn a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Carling Cup semifinal encounter.
Arsene Wenger, as expected, fielded a young lineup, though the in-form Eduardo, who’d started and scored in all three of Arsenal’s previous Carling Cup matches, was left on the bench, with Nicklas Bendtner and Robin Van Persie getting the starting assignments up front. Even with all of the reports linking Jens Lehmann with a move back to Borussia Dortmund, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see Lukasz Fabianski in goal, as he’d started the previous three Cup ties.
Juande Ramos has made good use of his starters in the competition, and did so again for the first leg, with one notable exception, as Paul Robinson was sitting in the stands, with Radek Cerny getting the gloves for the clash. It’s too early to read too much into that move, but Robinson has had his struggles, and you can’t fault Ramos for giving Cerny a chance to prove his worth as the #1.
Both sides created opportunities in the early going, with the pace of Theo Walcott troubling Spurs a couple of times in the first several minutes. However, nothing came out of either run into the box, and the same can be said for Tottenham’s first real chance. It came in the fifth minute when Ledley King got behind the defense, only for Aaron Lennon to make a mess of the cross, which wouldn’t be the last time that would happen on the night.
The best chance of the first 15 minutes came from the home side, when Justin Hoyte’s cross found Bendtner, who had a glorious chance from close range, but his header didn’t have enough on it, and Cerny beat it away.
After that point, Dimitar Berbatov, much like Shaun Wright-Phillips on Tuesday night for Chelsea, took it upon himself to terrorize Arsenal’s back line. Whether or not he’ll be in a Manchester United or Chelsea uniform in the near future is anybody’s guess, but he gave a shining example of why Ramos is so determined to keep him.
In the 24th minute, the brilliant Bulgarian set up a scoring chance by winning a free kick on the edge of the box, but Jamie O’Hara’s go at goal was wide.
Just past the half-hour, Berba was at it again, setting up strike partner Robbie Keane with a feed into the box, and though Keane couldn’t get a shot off, the ball fell to Steed Malbranque, who sent his shot just wide.
Malbranque would have another chance just as quickly, as Arsenal’s inexperienced keeper was nearly made to pay for a questionable decision to come out and take on a hard-charging Keane.
Two minutes later, Berbatov tried his luck from about 25 yards out that Fabianski did good to parry.
With all the pressure that Spurs were putting on, a goal was inevitable, and it would come in the 37th minute, with Berbatov unsurprisingly playing a part in it.
But, instead of scorer, he was provider. His volleyed pass found Keane, who’d broken away into space with Jermaine Jenas. The Irishman laid off it off for Jenas, who applied the finishing touch to give Tottenham a well-deserved lead.
It should have been 2-0 in the first minute of injury time, when the ball came to Berbatov, who would have likely beaten Fabianski if he had been more timely with his effort from about 10 yards, but over-confidence must have gotten the best of him, as his shot was pretty tame and into the keeper’s chest.
The second half wasn’t as action-packed as the first, but if there was a second goal to come, you’d have expected it to be from Spurs, as they continue to force the issue as the match went into the final 20 minutes.
That’s when Arsenal came to life again, and had a couple of chances to scratch the scoresheet.
In the 73rd minute, King gave away a dangerous free kick on the right side of the box, but Armand Traore’s wild effort would have only been a goal if the net was in the stands.
Shortly after, Abou Diaby had an effort from the edge of the box, but still, Spurs held steady, and should have wrapped the victory up as things edged towards the final ten minutes when Pascal Chimbonda set up King with a sitter, but he doesn’t get paid for his finishing skills, as evidenced by his lackluster effort.
And within moments, Arsenal pulled one out of the hat to draw themselves level, putting Spurs to the sword for not having increased their advantage.
Halftime sub Eduardo slid a pass through to Walcott, who have weaved his way through two Tottenham players and into open space. Lee Young-Pyo slid in on Walcott as he looked to get off a shot, but the only thing the Korean might have succeeded in doing was helping direct the ball off of the youngster’s body and past a discombobulated Cerny and in.
In the final minutes, Ramos brought on Jermain Defoe, sporting something resembling a haircut, and he had a late chance to give everyone something else to talk about, but alas, only his head was reminiscent of Ronaldo, and not his finishing.
In the end, the Sol Campbell voodoo doll struck again, with Tottenham letting another one slip away, and along with it, a decidedly distinct advantage for the second leg.
However, even though they couldn’t get the victory, Spurs should feel confident heading into the second leg, because the comforts of home might see more of those missed opportunities from the Emirates translate into goals at White Hart Lane, where they’re averaging three goals a game in the league.
The key will be the defense, which has been penetrated frequently in league action, but had actually gone without allowing a goal in the Carling Cup before Walcott’s late equalizer.
As for the Gunners, it wasn’t their best performance, but you don’t always need your best to get a result. However, Arsene will be expecting more out of his bunch come the second leg, whether or not he decides to include more of his regulars in the starting lineup.
As tight as Arsenal and Tottenham have played each other, we can expect – and hope – for more of the same in the second leg.
Will there be more late drama in the second legs of the Carling Cup semifinals? We’ll have match reports of both encounters in two weeks’ time.