Arsenal v Tottenham: this one is about a lot more than just local pride
Premier League: Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur, Emirates Stadium, 12.45pm
It may be almost nine months ago, but in the blue and white half of north London the last derby showdown is still something of a sensitive subject.
Spurs arrived at the Emirates 10 points clear of Arsenal on February 26, and the prospect of finishing above their most bitter rivals for the first time in 17 years dominated the pre-match build-up. The balance of power, it seemed, was about to shift.
When Harry Redknapp’s side stormed into a 2-0 lead in the first half, it looked a foregone conclusion, but we all know what happened next.
Arsenal scored five times in 28 minutes either side of half-time to record a famous win that gave the Gunners the momentum to finish the season strongly, while simultaneously puncturing the morale of their neighbours. Arsenal finished third, Spurs fourth, and when Chelsea won the European Cup in Munich, the Champions League and soon Redknapp himself were history for Tottenham.
Wind the clock forward to the present and on Saturday Andre Villas-Boas is the man at the helm, a 10th different opposition manager for Arsene Wenger in the north London derby.
Ever since he first locked horns with Gerry Francis in 1996, Wenger has held the upper hand in these clashes, but Redknapp came closer than anybody to breaking that stranglehold.
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The epic 4-4 draw in October 2008 was Redknapp’s second match in charge of Spurs and his derby record in eight games against Wenger’s side saw three wins apiece and two draws.
However, it was February’s game that was to prove the defining moment and, ultimately, be the beginning of the end of Redknapp’s White Hart Lane reign.
Villas-Boas would have sympathy, because it wasn’t Arsenal’s only five-goal derby demolition last season. Last October’s 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge was also to prove a defining moment for Chelsea. By the time the sides met again in April at the Emirates, Villas-Boas was gone.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy saw his chance to snap up a manager who had cost Chelsea vast sums to tempt from Porto the previous year, and in June Villas-Boas was confirmed as Redknapp’s successor.
It is a second chance for the 35-year-old, and Levy knows he has taken a gamble on a man whose tenure at Stamford Bridge was a spectacular failure that was made even more glaring by Chelsea going on to attain unlikely Champions League glory under Roberto Di Matteo.
Everton’s David Moyes, Wigan’s Roberto Martinez and (at the time) Swansea’s Brendan Rodgers were all considered, while there was – and still is –a sizeable contingent at the club who didn’t believe Redknapp should have been relieved of his duties in the first place.
Villas-Boas has been placed under immediate pressure to succeed, with the added pressure of a new stadium project bubbling away in the background.
Spurs have started patchily, with the highlight of a first win at Old Trafford for 23 years in September receding after three defeats in their last four games.
The knives were out for Villas-Boas this time last year after Chelsea’s defeat to Arsenal, and they are being sharpened again.
Expectations are high at Tottenham given that Redknapp finished fourth, fifth, and fourth in his three full seasons in charge.
The same pressure of course applies to Wenger, who has never finished outside the top four in his 16-year Arsenal reign.
Given the form of the current top three it is already looking like fourth place is the summit of Arsenal and Tottenham’s ambitions and the present incumbents, an impressive Everton side, look like they will provide stiff competition and last the distance.
Saturday’s game will not decide who finishes where, but it will be a barometer. The derby, more than ever, appears to be one neither manager can afford to lose.