The Match: The greatest North London Derby of them all

On Saturday 13th November 2004, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal took to the field at White Hart Lane and then proceeded to serve up a scintillating footballing spectacle that encapsulated the spirit of all a derby can, and perhaps should, be.

In a twisting, nerve-jangling, joyously exuberant expression of footballing joie-de-vivre, the old enemies – each suitably clad in white and navy, on the part of the hosts, and red and white, in the case of the visitors – shed nerves, inhibitions, and, lets face it, all tactical discipline, in the name of delivering an absolute rollercoaster of a match.

The Gunners were the favourites. Though, to embrace the cliche, such trifling concerns as form and talent dwindle into irrelevance on derby day. 

That’s not to suggest that Spurs didn’t boast a side packed with real quality. Ledley King, Michael Carrick, and the lethal pairing of Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe lent Martin Jol’s team a spine that would be the envy of most. Jol himself was taking charge of his first league match as Spurs boss since taking over from Jacques Santini.

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Arsene Wenger’s outfit were an altogether different beast. The reigning Premiership (as it was then known) champions, whose historic 49-game unbeaten run had been brought to an end only a month earlier, were one of the finest sides in Europe. The likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, and an impudently talented teenager by the name of Cesc Fabregas, rocked up to White Hart Lane intent on making their superiority utterly unquestionable.

Things did not immediately go to plan for Arsenal. Hot-tempered German Jens Lehmann was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers for the majority of the first half. After 36 minutes, Spurs took a deserved lead via a volleyed finish from Noureddine Naybet.

Spurs continued to swarm forward, and on the stroke of half-time, were punished for their aggression. Arsenal right-back Lauren clipped an inch-perfect ball over the top of the retreating Tottenham rearguard. The Gunners’ talismanic striker, Henry, expertly took the ball down before poking it home past the despairing Paul Robinson.

It meant that these fierce rivals went in at the break on level terms. A harsh outcome from a Tottenham perspective.

In the second period, though, Wenger’s side asserted their dominance. 

Ten minutes after the restart, Freddie Ljungberg was hauled down in the box and referee Steve Bennett pointed to the spot. Adding a goal to his earlier assist, Lauren stepped up to send Robinson the wrong way.

Moments later, a shambolic mix up at the back allowed Vieira to rob the ball in Spurs’ half and bear down on the home team’s goal. With only Robinson to beat, the Arsenal captain clipped the ball into the back of the net. With the visitors 3-1 up it ought to have been over. It wasn’t.

Less than two minutes later, Defoe took matters into his own hands, and in a repeat of Vieira’s earlier trick, took possession of the ball in the Arsenal final third and opted to simply charge at the opposition defence. Unhindered, he arrived at the edge of the box before gloriously dispatching the ball into the top corner. White Hart Lane erupted. Chaos reigned.

Less than ten minutes later, the two goal cushion was restored, as Fabregas slipped a delightful reverse pass through a gap in the Spurs defence which set Ljungberg loose to sweep home.

Guess what? Ledley King popped up with a header to reduce the arrears once more. It took the Arsenal substitute, Pires, to produce a dazzling shift of the feet and smart finish to once against restore the Gunners’ two goal advantage. Again, it didn’t last, as Freddie Kanoute popped up to briefly re-stoke the fading embers of a game that had finally burned itself out. The final score, Tottenham 4-5 Arsenal.

We may never see a north London derby of its like again. It was, though, a ninety minutes that epitomised the spirit of the fixture. 

Things are very different today. White Hart Lane and Arsene Wenger are gone. None of the players on the pitch on that day in 2004 still represent either club. Gone are the days of Invincible Arsenal; Spurs are currently the ascendant side in north London.

One thing will never change though, on derby day, these two clubs have the capacity to produce Premier League magic. Here’s hoping for another dose on Sunday.