By Richard Clarke
In essence, every derby is simply a matter of self-respect.
No matter how well your side is performing, if they lose a head-to-head to their near neighbours then honour is tarnished.
Defeat at White Hart Lane in April not only shunted Arsenal out of the last season’s title race it also demonstrated that Tottenham had closed the gap on Arsène Wenger’s men.
In the end, the Emirates Stadium side did maintain a 17-year run of finishing higher in the Premier League table. But they left it until the last game of the campaign and, by then, Tottenham had secured a spot in the Champions League for the first time.
Harry Redknapp’s side have gone to prove themselves in the competition this term, most notably by beating Inter at White Hart Lane. However European exploits have undermined their Premier League form.
They will start Saturday’s 147th league meeting between the sides down in seventh place. Defeat would leave them a massive ten points adrift of Arsenal and allow the red half of North London to suggest that the division between the two teams is satisfyingly wide once more.
Of course, this shift may be down to Arsenal’s upward movement as much as Tottenham’s downward drift. Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last weekend left Wenger’s men two points off the lead.
But the manager knows his side still have their own status anxiety to overcome. Arsenal have not truly sustained a title challenge since they last lifted the trophy in 2004. This season they are shaping up to be much more than nearly men – but they still have some way to go.
“Like every team we want to be respected and taken seriously,” said Wenger. “When people do that, we are happy.
“We are conscious that only comes through our attitude and performances which is why it is important for us to be consistent now.
“Tottenham have always very had good teams and good players like Darren Anderton and David Ginola. But it is the first time they have finished in the top four since I was here, so it means their achievement was better than before.
“But you always take them seriously, especially when it is a derby and there is a bit more edge to it.
“I do not consider their overall record against us. You just know it is a game where you want to be at your best.”
That White Hart Lane win was Tottenham’s first in 21 games against the ‘Old Enemy’. Their last victory on Arsenal territory came in May 1993 when George Graham was resting players ahead of the FA Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday. Of the last 33 points available in this fixture, the red side have taken an incredible 29.
Of course, all those statistics were built up against a Tottenham side without Gareth Bale and Raphael van der Vaart. The duo have been among a handful of stand-out performers in this season’s Premier League. But, as usual before a big game, Wenger was happy to keep the hype at arm’s length.
“Yes, it will certainly be important to keep Bale quiet,” he admitted. “But Tottenham have many good players in their team – Bale, Van der Vaart, Modric, Defoe, Pavlyuchenko. Let’s not focus on that too much.
“They have good players, we know that. But they are only good players if they perform. For us it is important to produce a team performance and not to focus on one player. Then we have a good chance to win.”
Jack Wilshere passed a fitness test on Friday and will be named in the squad. Laurent Koscielny is back from suspension but Wenger may not choose to break up the centre back partnership of Sebastien Squillaci and Johan Djourou that withstood tough trips to Wolves and Everton last week.
Robin van Persie had 45 minutes more football with Holland this week but is highly unlikely to start. Nicklas Bendtner is also working his way back to full fitness and will be saved for the trip to Braga on Tuesday.
Victory over Tottenham will put Arsenal top of the Premier League for a few hours at least. Defeat would mean Arsenal had registered back-to-back losses on home soil for the first time in 13 years. Though it must be said that the second reverse – 3-1 against Blackburn in December 1997 – precipitated an unbeaten run that only ended when Arsenal had taken the title.
Wenger admits his side have performed poorly in their last four home league games – two of which they have lost. He even suggested they may have to look for longer balls to overcome the issue. All very odd.
But then this particular Premier League is proving a peculiar beast. Right now, Arsenal’s title credentials are not 100 per cent convincing but they are as good those of their main rivals and vastly better than the lower two-thirds of the table.
“It is open,” said Wenger. “I’ve said since the first six games that it looks like the most consistent team will be rewarded.
“That is why I feel we have created a certain consistency in the last six games. Let's just build on that and continue our momentum.
“The players will feel it is important to win the big games and tomorrow is a big game.
“So, for us, it is just an opportunity.”
Of course, for the rest of us, it is much, much more than that.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source