Preview: Tottenham vs Arsenal

North London braces itself for the most important derby meeting in years, but who has the edge?

Article By James Johnstone

Am I the only one who will be a little bit sad to say goodbye to February? It’s a month that actually represents one of my favourite times of year for football – the return of the Champions League, consistent FA Cup drama and the first domestic cup final of the season? Not bad for the shortest month of the year.

Looking back, this season has been a bit weird, hasn’t it? Events seem to be occurring in the opposite way to which you’d expect. For example, Chelsea sacked a fan-favourite, Champions League winning manager and replaced him with a man that the fans hate. Everton started strongly and are now starting to trail off, a complete reversal to their usual seasonal form. A team from the fourth tier of English football made it to the Capital One Cup final. QPR are paying average footballers ludicrous amounts of money to get them relegated. Basically, things have been a bit crazy, and there seems to be no let- up on the horizon.

It’s also clear is that this season’s conclusion probably won’t hit that same hyper-dramatic climax as last year – at least not in Manchester, anyway. This means that the drama will have to be found elsewhere
for the run-in, and while the battle at the bottom could well drag on until the very last whistle, the real intrigue looks set to come from the scrap for the remaining Champions League places.

And what a scrap it may prove to be. With eleven games to go, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are separated by just four points in 3rd, 4th and 5th, with the gap in appeal (and financial gain) between the Champions League and Europa League as gargantuan as it has ever been. It’s exciting just thinking about it, right?

Not only is it already close, but this three-way race for the Champions League is also awash with sub-plot. Intense inter-team rivalries? Check – this is a race to be the pride of London this season. All three
clubs managers desperate to prove themselves? Check – André Villas- Boas is aiming to put one over on his former employers, Arsène Wenger needs to appease discontent fans and Rafa Benitez made it crystal clear on Wednesday night that he is looking for potential suitors that aren’t Chelsea.

Furthermore, to really spice things up, there are still a couple of keygames to be played between the three   sides – Tottenham’s visit to Stamford Bridge on April 14th whets the appetite, but before then they face Arsenal this Sunday, in what has to be the most important North London derby in years, as well as potentially one of the most exciting.

The Arsenal-Tottenham rivalry has developed a fascinating recent history; Arsenal are a shadow of the team that strutted their way so confidently to invincible status back in 2004, while Spurs have used that time to develop into a side with consistent Champions League ambitions. Rarely has it been so difficult to separate the red and white halves of North London as it has been over the last eighteen months, with last season’s battle for third going down to the very last kick. Arsenal emerged a point better off then, and certainly have history on their side – Spurs haven’t finished above the Gunners for eighteen years, since before Arsène Wenger’s reign at the club have even begun.

However, it is not the past that signifies the significance of Sunday’s meeting to both sides, as this match alone could play a massive part in shaping both club’s future.

For Arsenal, domestic and probable European failure means that maintaining Champions League status looks like their only realistic aim left this season. Missing out on Champions League qualification in itself would put severe strain on an already divided supporter base, but to lose out to Tottenham would pour salt onto a fresh wound, something which Arsène Wenger simply cannot afford at present. It would also deal a major blow to the club’s financial philosophy – Wenger and CEO Ivan Gazidis have consistently stated the importance of Champions League TV revenue and prize money to Arsenal’s finances, so to lose such a vital source of income at this stage would cause considerable damage.

For Tottenham, the importance of Champions League qualification is no less significant, but for different reasons. For them it is about progression. Spurs were talked up as potential title challengers last season before crumbling when it really mattered. However, despite the media furore surrounding Harry Redknapp’s sacking and Luka Modric’s departure, Spurs look unquestionably better off for it now. Under Villas-Boas they are better organised defensively, remain fluid in midfield, and in Gareth Bale they now have a game-changer in the form of his career so far (even if comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo are somewhat premature right now). Securing a top-four finish would do their chances of keeping Bale and other key players next season no harm whatsoever, and that is imperative for them if they are to realise their ambitions of becoming a genuine Premier League heavyweight.

The impact that finishing above Arsenal might have mentally for Spurs should not be overlooked either – shifting that 18-year monkey from their backs would give the club a huge boost of confidence, particularly if it meant simultaneously ending Arsenal’s 16-year stay in the Champions League.

And so, who has the edge come Sunday?

In terms of league form both have been excellent – Tottenham last lost a league match on December 9th, 11 games ago, while Arsenal have only lost two league games in the same time. Their previous meeting this season also does little to justifiably separate the two – even though Arsenal’s 5-2 victory in November gave them the bragging rights, Spurs were 1-0 up and will claim they were in control at the Emirates before Emmanuel Adebayor’s reckless sending off.

What is revealing is the recent value of playing at home in North London derbies – since the 2005/06 season, both sides have only won once away from home against each other in the league. Indeed, Arsenal’s last league victory at White Hart Lane came way back in September 2007, when Adebayor (who scored that day) was still making a name for himself at the Emirates. This will make happy reading for already quietly confident Spurs fans.

For Arsenal, losing simply is not an option – cutting a seven point deficit in 10 games could well be a task too great, especially as the Spurs collapse of last season looks unlikely this time around. However, solace should be taken from the fact that one year ago this week, they were 2-0 down to Spurs at the Emirates and staring the Europa League square in the face. Arsenal have come back from far worse situations than this one, and can never be discounted too soon. And as if that wasn’t enough, you can probably expect goals too, and plenty of them – the last nine league games between the two sides have gone for an average of 4.6 goals per game, including a 2-3, 3-3, 4-4 and two 5-2s.

So in short, we’re to expect drama, intrigue and goals, all enclosed in a heated derby atmosphere. It’ll be a nervy one for the fans, but Sunday’s North London derby could well be one of the most exciting games of the season so far. Knowing how ridiculous this season has been, it’ll probably now end 0-0 now, won’t it?