Another false dawn or are Spurs ready to be Arsenal's rivals again?
THERE was something unmistakeably strange about last week s Champions League group stage draw for Arsenal fans, and it was not merely the bizarre set of teams that the Gunners were handed in Group H. As unfamiliar as the names of Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga a
THERE was something unmistakeably strange about last week's Champions League group stage draw for Arsenal fans, and it was not merely the bizarre set of teams that the Gunners were handed in Group H.
As unfamiliar as the names of Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga and FK Partizan may appear, they were still not as strange as the uncomfortable sight of the name of Tottenham Hotspur among the 32 teams.
The red and white side of north London has very much considered Europe's elite competition its own domain after 13 consecutive seasons of participation, during all of which time the old enemy from up the Seven Sisters Road has looked on in envy.
No longer shall that be the case. The last hope for Gunners fans was that Spurs would blow their qualifying play-off against Young Boys of Bern, but last week's 4-0 win at White Hart Lane completed a 6-3 aggregate success and Harry Redknapp's side had booked their place at the top table.
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London is the first city to have three participants in the Champions League, and north London has two of them. How that might take some getting used to for Arsenal fans.
Those midweek glamour ties, the focus of all Europe, have been Arsenal's alone since the days when Arsene Wenger's champions first participated, at Wembley of course, way back in 1998.
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Now they will share the spotlight, although even that may not be the case given that Spurs' Group A contains reigning champions Inter Milan, the Bundesliga side Werder Bremen and Dutch champions FC Twente. It has a little more intrigue than Arsenal's group, where the Gunners will be expected to progress smoothly and with games to spare.
Tottenham, nervous new boys with a point to prove, will undeniably be a far more compelling story on their first foray into the big time since their only previous European Cup adventure in the 1961-62 season.
"They have a good squad and they could do very well," said Wenger last week. "They are a good team and I believe they will certainly have a chance of reaching the last 16.
"What is very important is that you are capable of focusing on the Champions League and the Premier League. It is not easy because both take a lot of energy."
There was an early test of that dual balancing act at the weekend, and Spurs flunked it with a disastrous home defeat to Wigan, although Redknapp denied it was down to their midweek European exertions alone.
But while that result may have restored the feeling of north London dominance for the Gunners, there is no doubting the way that Spurs have clawed back some respect in recent months.
In April they ended Arsenal's incredible 11-year unbeaten derby run in Premier League matches with the 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane, and a month later they secured a top four place for the first time in almost two decades.
A fortnight ago Redknapp used his customary deviousness in the transfer market to persuade William Gallas to remain in north London rather than end his career in the comfort of Italy or Spain. While Arsenal had allowed Gallas to leave as a free agent, the move to N17 still came as a big surprise to Wenger who had already had one when he was snubbed by Sol Campbell who decided he would get more playing time at Newcastle.
Redknapp signed Gallas (pictured below) with the Champions League in mind, knowing the level of experience the Frenchman has on Europe's biggest stage. At Arsenal he often produced his best on European nights when the big-name strikers from the continent were his adversaries.
Of course, Arsenal and Wenger have heard it all before from Spurs, that this is going to be the season the balance of power in north London shifts. From the days of another who crossed the divide, George Graham, through the false dawns of Glenn Hoddle, Jaques Santini, Martin Jol and Juande Ramos.
Since the reign of the comedy Swiss manager Christian Gross, Spurs have tried to emulate the Gunners' appointment of Wenger with a top foreign coach of their own but have always come up short while the Frenchman prospered and delivered three Premier League titles and four FA Cups to their most detested rivals. The White Hart Lane faithful need no reminding that at the end of the current season it will be 50 years since they won the title, and 20 years since an FA Cup triumph, a competition they once dominated.
In the end they went back to an English old hand, and Redknapp has, thus far, delivered spectacularly.
But, as Wenger pointed out a little disingenuously back in May, Spurs celebrated finishing fourth when for Arsenal it counts as a disappointment.
Spurs have to take the extra step up, and Wenger knows how hard it can be to take on Europe's finest while holding a position in the top four. The season Arsenal came closest to lifting the European Cup, in 2006, was the year they so nearly dropped out of the top four. Only Spurs' now infamous 'lasagne-gate' defeat at West Ham on the final day ensured the cockerel did not start crowing four years ago.
Now Spurs sense another chance, and it was with delicious irony the two teams were paired together in Saturday's Carling Cup third round draw.
More than at any time in his 14-year reign it seems Wenger has reason to be wary of the old enemy. September 21 at White Hart Lane will be just the beginning of this season's derby confrontations and this time Spurs will understand why the competition is so low on Arsenal's priority list.
Whatever sides the two managers decide to put out, both will be as keen as ever to win. This season the derby rivalry will go up a notch or two, and the clubs could yet meet in four different competitions.
Striking the first blow might just make that uncomfortable feeling Arsenal fans had in their stomachs while watching their great rivals take the Champions League limelight last week recede a little.