“It is still special for me 16 years on from first arriving at Arsenal; maybe even more now because, when I arrived, I was a bit more detached from all that [surrounds it].
“The longer you stay here, the more you realise how some houses are divided in two and what impact it has on the mood of the week for everybody.
“Of course I am conscious of that but what I am even more conscious of is the magical importance of this game.”
That was Arsène Wenger ahead of Sunday’s North London derby.
At any level, on any day, Tottenham v Arsenal will never be trivial.
Over 1.5 goals @ 2/11
But, in recent years, these two neighbours are lifting the ceiling of importance. Games so memorable you only need the score to identify them – the 5-2, the 4-4, the 3-2, the other 5-2, the 5-1.
This fixture seems to do a weighty trade in goals and gravitas these days. And Sunday’s game already has the latter.
Arsenal are fifth with 47 points, Tottenham fourth with 51. Chelsea edged into third by winning their weekend game on Saturday but remain eminently catchable.
As in ‘the 5-2’ this time last year, a gap in the race for a Champions League spot (and indeed the championship of north London which Arsenal have held for 17 years) can be opened or closed at White Hart Lane.
However, ahead of the game, Wenger was suggesting the result’s eventual resonance would be mental as much as mathematical.
“The game on Sunday will have a psychological importance for the rest of the season,” he said.
“If you look at the mathematics, it is very important. I’ve said many times that we cannot afford to drop any points really.
I’m convinced that it will not be down to Tottenham’s performance but how well we perform.Arsène Wenger
“However,” he went on, “it will not be a decisive game. We want to win it and, before a game, when you are a manager, you have to accept that you can win, you can lose and you can draw.
“You deal with all that after the game. What you focus on before the game is just to win. You go into it with that mentality and that idea - how can we win? how much have we to put in to win? Let’s make sure we do it!
“After that, you deal with the consequences of the game.
“And my job is to convince the players that the result of any match is just a consequence of their performance on the day. No matter how much you speak before, no matter how much you speak after, what really matters is what you produce during the game.”
And, during his pre-match media work, Wenger was asked to speak at length about Gareth Bale. It is understandable. The Welshman is having a stunning season and has been pivotal to Tottenham’s recent victories over West Brom, Newcastle and, on Monday night, West Ham.
However it was understandable that, despite his admiration, the Arsenal manager did not want to be drawn on such a significant individual threat in the opposition.
“I’m convinced that it will not be down to Tottenham’s performance but how well we perform,” said Wenger.
“We play away from home in a derby. You want to focus on your performance and be calm. You need those two together, calm and focused, plus being united and making sure that you express your game. Tottenham have players that are good. We know that before the kick-off. What will change and what is important is that we are good on the day.”
Arsenal have only one unresolved injury issue; the calf problem that forced off Abou Diaby against Aston Villa last Saturday. Bacary Sagna is still out so it is safe to assume that Carl Jenkinson will remain at right back.
That victory means Wenger’s men now have four wins and a draw out of their last five Premier League; a record admitted punctured by those defeats to Bayern and Blackburn. However the clean-sheet at Sunderland three weeks ago means Arsenal conceded just 11 goals in 13 away games – the best record in the top flight.
Andre Villas-Boas seems to have had a galvanising effect on Tottenham this season after taking over from Harry Redknapp. They are unbeaten in 11 matches, thanks largely to Bale’s average of a goal-a-game in the last dozen encounters, and have not tasted defeat at White Hart Lane since November 3. However, interestingly they had garnered seven more points at home at an equivalent stage last term.
Last season’s “5-2” heralded a dramatic turnaround that saw Arsenal overturn a sizeable Tottenham lead in the final few months of the season. Of course, Redknapp’s men did finish in the top four and it was only Chelsea’s Champions League win that stopped them reaching Europe’s top table. Although, Everton are still in the mix, you’d think it is all about these three again and Wenger feels that history gives his side have a slight edge.
“We have a huge desire to be in the Champions League,” he said. “We want to be in it. We have always done it so we want to do it again of course. The level of our players is to be in the Champions League. That’s why this end of season is so important for us.
“For me it will be down to consistency,” concluded Wenger. “We have the experience. We know how to handle these situations. We have done that for years and years. So, once again, it will be down to being calm, consistent and focused.”
Once again, the level of anticipation for this derby is sky-high.
Expect goals, drama and, quite possibly, another game that will be known simply by its scoreline.
Tottenham: Defoe (doubt - fitness), Dempsey (calf), Sandro (knee), Huddlestone (knee), Kaboul (knee).
Arsenal: Diaby (doubt - calf), Sagna (knee), Gibbs (thigh).
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