By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger has had a cold this week.
He croaked his way through an interview with TV Online on Thursday and coughed some of his answers at a press conference the following day.
However perhaps the secret of his success against Tottenham is that he never contracts North London derby fever.
The Arsenal manager has a gone nearly a decade without a League defeat to his nearest neighbours. In home games they have picked 26 points from a possible 30. It is a mammoth record that, in fairness, has creaked and groaned a little in recent years.
Tottenham started to regain a measure of their lost ground with a thumping 5-1 win in the Carling Cup Semi-Final in January 2008. However, for a full-on, first-team defeat you have to go back to derby No 142 in November 1999.
The one on Saturday lunchtime is No 162 and, ahead of it, Wenger spent his pre-match media work emphasising its mundanity.
“I always look forward to big games,” he said. “But we are in a strong position in the League and, above the derby, what is more important for me is to win the game because we want to win the title.
“I do not consider too much that we play Tottenham. I consider we can take three points to be in a stronger position in the League. That’s much more important.”
Last season, Arsenal took one point from this fixture but it felt like the most bitter defeat of any kind since the Millennium. Wenger’s men led 4-2 after 88 minutes but contrived to concede two goals in the desperate dying minutes. They would go on to lose three of their next four Premier League games, albeit with a win over Manchester United in the middle. Within three weeks, Wenger admitted at the end of that season, they were also runs in the title race.
“It’s difficult to know what the impact was,” said the Frenchman on Friday with a little more circumspection. “It was a big disappointment but overall I think we played well.
“At that time they had just changed the manager. Harry Redknapp was in one of his first games and Tottenham were like one of those teams who had a new manager, they kept going and kept going and they did well to come back.
“It took us some time to recover from that and you suffer more when you think you have won the game and the team comes back.
“It was like at West Ham last week I suppose. But at the end of the day we can say we didn’t deserve to win at Fulham [earlier this season] and we won. We got a draw at West Ham when we should have won. That’s part of the game. What is important is that we win the game tomorrow.”
The manager’s major team decision, yet again, concerns his goalkeeper. Lukasz Fabianski made his comeback after knee surgery on Wednesday but promptly suffered a thigh injury. Vito Mannone has been in goal since September 12 but Manuel Almunia is fit. That will be a crucial call.
Jack Wilshere (ankle), Carlos Vela (knee), Tomas Rosicky (knee) and Theo Walcott (ankle) are the absentees.
Tottenham have their fair share of problems too – Aaron Lennon (ankle), Luka Modric (broken leg) and Jermain Defoe (suspension) will be missed.
That 4-4 draw was Redknapp’s first game in charge of Tottenham. He had been appointed the day before the win over Bolton the previous weekend but had not been running the team. Back then they were second bottom. A year on and Tottenham are eyeing a Champions League place.
That means this game is not only about local bragging rights, it is 3rd v 4th in the Premier League. Wenger is happy to praise Redknapp but stopped short of suggesting this was the best Spurs side he had faced in his 13 years in North London.
“Harry Redknapp has done a good job because they were fighting not to go down,” said the Frenchman. “Of course they were already a threat though. In 2006 they were close to getting to the Champions League.
“Tottenham are a big club. They invest massive money every year so why should they not be a threat? But we managed always to get in front of them.”
Even the most confident Arsenal fan will suggest that is harder to do at the moment. Yet Wenger feels his side still have the edge for the moment.
“How do you measure the dimension of a club?” Wenger asked himself. “Success, exactly.
“So if you look at success historically they have a lot of work to do. We have been 12 consecutive years in the Champions League so once they have done that they can say, of course, that they are similar.
“You can never say they’ll never bridge the gap. They have the potential, and the supporters. They are a big club. But what comes next is the consistency of achievement. At the moment nobody would deny that Arsenal is in front of them.”
For the good of this season, they need to still be ahead of them after Saturday’s game.
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