It’s hardly as if next month’s North London derby needs much in the way of over-hyping although given the respective paths that both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal’s seasons are taking, it’s already shaping up to be something of a season defining fixture.
If you’re a fan on the red side of North London, you’re probably likely to be able to afford yourself something in the way of a wry smile. Arsenal fans have experienced as many false dawns from their N17 rivals as most of us have had hot dinners and Tottenham’s magnificent self-destruction last season ensured you still have to go back to 1995 to find the last time they finished above the Gunners.
Although while the ‘mind the gap’ cries from Spurs supporters last year still tends to evoke an unbearable cringe, the sense of inevitability that seemed to wrap itself around Arsenal’s surge to finish above their rivals last season, doesn’t feel quite so apparent this time around.
Now unbeaten in 10 within the Premier League, this Tottenham side isn’t without its issues, but they seem to have developed a new, previously absent steel to their mentality. Should they beat Arsenal at home come March 3rd, providing both sides win their next league game (against West Ham United and Aston Villa respectively) the gap between them will stretch to seven points, with only ten games left to play.
However you choose to frame next month’s clash between them, while it would be dabbling in a little too much hyperbole to label it as a date with destiny, a win for either side here can go a long way to determine who will end up playing Champions League football next term. And for Tottenham Hotspur, it represents the chance to banish the demons of last season once and for all.
It’s a year to the day that Harry Redknapp’s side took Newcastle United apart 5-0 at home, jolting them into a comfortable 10 point lead over Arsenal in the Premier League table and only five points behind then leaders Manchester United. The subsequent car crash that followed needs little in the way of another autopsy, although it seems somewhat poignant that Spurs’ upcoming fixture comes at such a time in the season.
Similarly to last season, bar the upcoming fixture away to West Ham, Spurs come off the back of a win against Newcastle heading into a North London derby with their destiny seemingly in their own hands. The gap may be slightly less this year and the optimism notably shallower, although the fixture has just as much potential to do such similar damage – not just to Spurs, but to Arsenal, too.
It may well be pointless trying to simulate recent history, but had Spurs won – or merely even avoided defeat last term – it still feels difficult to have foreseen them implode in quite the way they did. Redknapp’s flirting with the England job and Daniel Levy’s reluctance to spend all played their part, although the symbolism of the 5-2 hammering they took at the Emirates last year, seemed to leave the side shell-shocked as they entered the final straight off the Premier League season.
This season, Spurs have of course already taken an identical hit in the same fixture; although the difference is that they’ve managed to ride that shell shock out. The inevitable surge from Arsene Wenger’s team following that imperious win simply hasn’t come and instead of increasing their one point league over their rivals, they now sit four points behind them.
And whereas last season Arsenal had the comforts of the Emirates support to revitalise their season against Spurs, this year they’ll be heading to White Hart Lane to begin the effort to push into the season’s sprint finish. A win away to Villas-Boas’ side has the ability to symbolise just as crushing a blow as their home demolition did last term and wipe the gap out with plenty of football left to play. Losing however, could leave Arsene Wenger’s men with a very difficult job indeed to finish above their bitter rivals.
Who has the most to lose next month? For Spurs, the loss has the ability to inflict a very painful mental strike and although there’s plenty of football left to play, the triple whammy of games against Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City in April, will leave them with plenty to consider.
Although while a loss for Spurs puts them on a near-even keel with the Gunners, should Wenger’s team fail to take anything from White Hart Lane, they’ll find themselves heading into the season’s run in extremely difficult circumstances indeed.
While it would be naïve at best to pre-empt a Spurs win at Upton Park on the 25th of this month, should the status quo in points remain and Arsenal fall seven points behind following the North London derby, they’re looking at having to pick up little short of maximum points from their final run of games. Last season, they managed nine wins in eight following their 5-2 win in the North London derby. Whether this side – without the talents of Robin van Persie – are capable of such a feat, remains to be seen.
Both Andre Villas-Boas and Arsene Wenger are likely to view next month’s derby, for all its spice, verve and history, as little more than another fixture on the road to attaining a top four finish. But perhaps this season, more than ever in recent tines, there really is more than just bragging rights at stake in this fixture.
Back in November Villas-Boas spoke extensively about how Spurs “have to” finish above Arsenal in the league this year. Beat them at White Hart Lane next month and his side could make one giant stride towards making that concept a reality.