Friday, April 21, 2006

The derby

For the first time in many years, this weekend's North London derby between Spurs and Arsenal actually means more than just a meeting of two bigtime London clubs and their mutually hated fans. Not only is this the last North London derby to be played at venerable Highbury (the Gunners move to their gleaming new Emirates Stadium just down the road), but for the first time in quite a while, this matchup actually matters.

The Gunners sit four points adrift of Spurs and 4th place, the last spot for next year's UEFA Champions league, with a game in hand. Simultaneously, Arsenal will feature in the CL semifinal return leg game in Spain against Villareal with a one-goal advantage four days after their meeting w/Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. Arsenal are eligible to qualify for next year's competition through two avenues: Either they win the Champions League or finish in 4th place, both of which would leave Spurs out of the CL, a competition they have glaringly been absent from in many years.

The intense local rivalry began in 1919, six years after Arsenal moved from Woolwich to Highbury, just four miles from White Hart Lane. When the First Division was expanded by two teams, Chelsea were relegated in the 19th spot but allowed to stay, while Tottenham in the other relegated spot, 20th, were sent down to the Second Division. Arsenal, finishing 5th in the Second Division were promoted to the newly-expanded top flight, over Barnsley, who finished two spots above them.

Since then players and coaches have been shared by the club, usually first by Arsenal, and then later by Spurs; however most notably for the current era, Sol Campbell committed the egregious sin of leaving Spurs for Arsenal in 2001 on a Bosman (free) transfer. This year Campbell does not seem to factor into the derby as he will not be available on Saturday due to a broken nose suffered in Arsenal's draw w/Pompey two weeks ago.

Despite a loss to Manchester United for Spurs, and a draw with Portsmouth for Arsenal in the previous weeks, both teams are playing their best football of the season. Arsenal have set a Champions League record for clean sheets in this year's competition, and Spurs have played very dynamic and strong football this season, with the likes of Ledley King, Michael Carrick, Aaron Lennon, and the Jermaines (Defoe and Jenas) leading the charge of young English players, alongside stalwarts Edgar Davids in midfield and Paul Robinson in goal, and the striking skill of Robbie Keane and Ahmed Mido.

Martin Jol has certainly turned Tottenham Hotspur from a club that always lost the plot late (late in the season, late in the game) into bonafide contenders. For Arsene Wenger, this is the worst season for him and his young squad of Gunners, and he finds himself in the unfamiliar position of possibly not qualifying for next year, which would mean Emirates Stadium may not see European football at all next year. Both clubs could definitely use the extra money and attention Champions League football brings, especially for Arsenal, with the prospect of Theirry Henry possibly leaving at the end of this season and 66,000 seats to fill at their new ground.

Saturday's clash sees a banged-up Tottenham team (Ledley King is out with a broken foot, Jermaine Jenas is out w/a shin injury, and Davids, Mido, Teemu Tainio and Anthony Gardner are all questionable to play) face an Arsenal side that is playing their third of four games in ten days. Despite Campbell's injury, Ashley Cole is available, and Arsene Wenger will have many options in terms of the squad he starts the game with, keeping in mind they are to clash with Villareal at El Madrigal on Tuesday. Henry's absence in their clash with Manchester United almost three weeks ago (a 2-0 defeat) brought into question Wenger's decision to rest him ahead of their first first match with the Yellow Submarine. However, Robbie Keane and Tottenham Hotspur are not Wayne Rooney and Manchester United; don't be surprised to see Henry sit and make an appearance later in the game.

What is usually a fierce rivalry with very little relevance to the respective clubs' success is now perhaps the best match of the season in the Premiership, with so much at stake for both clubs. For Spurs, they can hold their lead with a draw, but for Arsenal, a win is necessary to threaten their neighbors in the chase for 4th place. Should be a cracker.

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