By Chris Harris
“What makes the difference on [derby] day is that fraction of belief, commitment and togetherness that gives a team a supplement of force.” - Arsène Wenger
As Arsène Wenger grimly admitted this week, football can be cruel. But it can offer redemption too.
Arsenal are one big performance away from transforming their title challenge. A second win of the season at White Hart Lane would rein in Tottenham, keep Manchester City at arm’s length and, at the very least, stop Leicester City from extending their six-point advantage over the Gunners.
Three straight defeats have rocked even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans. They doubt if their team can turn north London red this weekend.
But Wenger feels that Wednesday’s shock defeat to Swansea came in mitigating circumstances and he expects the derby to bring out the best in his players.
“We watched [the Swansea game] again and I think it was an unlucky defeat because we created chances, we were dangerous, we put the effort in.” he told Arsenal Player.
“It is these kind of games where 98 per cent of the time, we win it and I believe as well we were really unlucky with the decisions of the referee because the first goal was a foul, the second was offside.
|Tottenham: Dembele (groin - doubt), Vertonghen (knee), N’Jie (knee)
Arsenal: Cech, Koscielny, Wilshere (calf), Rosicky (thigh), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Cazorla (Achilles)
“At the moment there is not much time to recover and we have to take that as a positive thing. A win can change things quickly and I believe that, on a longer period, if your attitude is right and the quality of your game is right, you are always rewarded, even if in the short term sometimes it can go against you.
“We just want to continue to focus on the way we want to play and add a little bit extra in our commitment and discipline to turn things our way.”
There’s no such thing as an insignificant north London derby but you can count on this one being billed as the biggest ever. Wenger shies away from such labels, but with title aspirations on the line and the prospect of Tottenham finishing above Arsenal for the first time since 1995, he is not surprised by the hype.
“It is normal because both teams are fighting up there,” said Wenger. “The biggest ever? I don’t know the full history exactly but it is a big game, that is for sure. It is a very important one for both teams and we also have a good record against Tottenham and we want to keep that up.
“What makes the difference on [derby] day is that fraction of belief, commitment and togetherness that gives a team a supplement of force. That is what we want to show.
“[We won there this season and] what you have done can always help you to know that you can do it. Let’s focus on the process and defend well together, attack well together, play our passing game and be ready for a fight for 90 minutes. That might be the key in the end.”
ONE TO WATCH
Petr Cech’s calf injury - sustained in the dying seconds of the Swansea game - rubbed salt in Arsenal’s midweek wounds.
His absence opens the door for David Ospina who, it’s easy to forget, was keeping clean sheets on a regular basis this time last year.
Ospina ended that campaign with the Premier League’s highest win ratio and save percentage, and Wenger makes no secret of his high regard for Colombia’s No 1.
“I’m a big admirer of David Ospina and it’s a good opportunity for him to show that I’m right,” said the manager.
“It’s hard because the demands are completely different to just sitting on the bench. On the other hand he’s fresh because the mental demands on the goalkeepers are high as well.
“I knew before the season that it would be difficult physically for Petr Cech to go through the whole season. That’s why I tried to alternate in the Champions League with Ospina. He had games in the Champions League, the League Cup, the FA Cup, so I believe he’s prepared.”
As for handling the pressure and hostility of a north London derby at White Hart Lane, it’s worth remembering that Ospina played in a World Cup quarter-final for Colombia against Brazil.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Wenger. “He’s a guy who can absorb pressure. He played senior football at 17 years of age and maybe the pressure is high there as well. On that front I’m not worried for him.”
Tottenham have been trying to finish above Wenger ever since he arrived in north London.
|Arsenal have taken the most points from the head to heads between this season's top four (10), while Spurs have eight
Tottenham striker Harry Kane has scored 13 goals in 17 Premier League London derbies
The Gunners have scored in 41 of their last 42 meetings with Tottenham in all competitions
There have been some close shaves. Just one point separated the sides in 2012 and 2013, and Spurs stumbled on the final day of the 2005/06 season to hand Arsenal the local bragging rights while they said goodbye to Highbury.
Twenty years is a long time to be in your neighbour’s shadow but Tottenham have blossomed under Mauricio Pochettino.
His Spurs side is organised, aggressive, hard-working and dynamic. Spurs fans are starting to believe that this could finally be their year.
“They don’t have any weak points,” admitted Wenger. “They are a young side who are strong physically. They are well organised as well and, with the emergence of Harry Kane, they have a guy who can score goals.
“Most of the young players who have come in have done well. Dele Alli has made a good impact as well.”