By Richard Clarke
It is one of ‘those' North London derbies.
By definition, the game is always crucial for both clubs. This one, however, could define both their seasons.
Intriguingly, neither side can settle for the sanctity of a stalemate. Arsenal and Tottenham have drawn nine of the 13 games at White Hart Lane in the Arsène Wenger era. Normally it is seen as a face-saving result, this evening it will cut each other's footballing throat.
The visitors already know Chelsea must stumble in order for them to win the title so straight victories from their remaining five games are essential. Having been shocked by Portsmouth in Sunday's FA Cup Semi-Final, Champions League qualification is the only target left for the hosts. Tottenham trail Manchester City by four points. This is their game in hand.
That deals with the statistical imperatives. But derby day is always about the emotional much more than the rational. And there is plenty to get passionate about tonight.
Premier League football is often likened to that other British obsession - the soap opera. But tonight's story is closer to the interwoven intrigue of William Shakespeare.
Here's just some of the issues at play: Arsenal's title tilt, Tottenham's top-four bid, Song, Palacios, Kranjcar all not playing, Sol Campbell playing, Van Persie's return, is Portsmouth out of Tottenham's head, is Barcelona out of Arsenal's, Wembley fatigue, the revitalised Gareth Bale, Wenger's incredible record in this fixture. You can go on and on.
Pre-match, even the ever-calm Arsenal manager suggested this particular derby was bubbling up nicely.
"You see the tension gets progressively bigger as the game gets closer," he said. "I was not as much aware of it before I came here but then you realise that it's always a special game.
"We will go in fit and ready. I don't know what they will do. But we will try to win the game because we know that one point for us is not good enough for our target. At the moment, it's important for us to get the three."
It is impossible to tell what Tottenham left at Wembley after that stamina-sapping, deflating 120 minutes on Sunday. The absence of Wilson Palacios (suspended) and Niko Krancjar (ankle) are heartening to Arsenal fans but it is more than compensated by the loss of Alex Song (knee), Andrey Arshavin (calf), William Gallas (calf) and Cesc Fabregas (fibula).
The inclusion of Van Persie is newsworthy but, after five months out, he will start on the bench and is unlikely to exert an influence unless Arsenal are chasing the game.
"Our job is not to speculate on any weakness of Tottenham," remarked Wenger. "Maybe the fact it is a derby will get their frustration out from Sunday."
As ever before a big game, the manager was a study in restraint when he spoke to the media. For example this was his response when asked if Tottenham had closed the gap on Arsenal in the past 12 months.
"I don't know. I have been here for 13 years, so you can never rule it out. They have a good side. When we listened to people at the start of the season we were nowhere. So it's always down to performances. They have a good side and a good potential. It's always down to how many points you get."
The other issue requiring a bucket of cold water is the return of Sol Campbell. The centre back played 315 times for Spurs between 1992 and 2001. He is 206 and counting in his second spell on the red side of North London. Those of us who saw his first game at White Hart Lane following the switch will never forget it. Unfortunately, it seems that time has not take the edge off that anger.
"I remember Sol's big challenge after about ten minutes of his first game back at White Hart Lane," said Wenger. "That's where he showed he is a man. That was it for him. You always wonder how much impact the pressure will have on his shoulders but he showed straight away 'I am ready for the challenge'.
"That first time was terrible but he did well. Tottenham have seen so many centre backs now and I believe he knows how to handle it.
"When you are a football player or manager you focus on the game. Don't forget I got a lot of abuse in England so I'm not surprised by all that stuff but it doesn't bother you. I don't hear anything during the game. I couldn't even tell you what people say. I focus on the game."
Tottenham lost their focus for 11 seconds at Emirates Stadium on October 31 and conceded two 43rd-minute goals that effectively refined their ambitions down to fourth place. With the battles to be champions and be Champions League elect so tight, there is a temptation for ‘if onlys' right now. Despite being the kings of the last-gasp strike, Arsenal have their fair share of regrets but, on the eve of the game, Wenger was going all ‘Edith Piaf'.
"You have always that at the end of the season," he said. "For example you think if we had those points at Birmingham but you forget as well that you won games in the last seconds or minutes. You take that for granted and think if you have one or two points more.
"Overall, I don't believe we have been unlucky this year. I believe the team has shown unbelievable mental strength. We have made a big step forward and this team deserves a lot of credit."
All that is true but it need not stop there. The prevailing wisdom now sees Chelsea as champions-elect but they hardly oozed confidence in beating Bolton on Tuesday. And of course, the prevailing wisdom with regard the title has not prevailed for very long this season.
It has been a rollercoaster campaign where the straightforward has seemed difficult and the difficult much, much more than that.
Arsenal have battled hard to retain their status as title-chasers and, unfortunately, they may remain only that until May 9.
However there is no need for their challenge to end tonight at White Hart Lane.
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