LONDON One of the most fiercely contested Premier League fixtures of the season will take on even more importance than usual on Sunday when Arsenal play Tottenham Hotspur in the 150th north London league derby at the Emirates Stadium.
Victory for Spurs, who won 3-2 there last season after trailing 2-0 at halftime, would move Harry Redknapp’s side 13 points clear of their arch-rivals and keep them on the coat-tails of leaders Manchester City and Manchester United with 12 matches to play.
City should keep up their title challenge with a 13th successive home league win of the season when they play 17th-placed Blackburn Rovers on Saturday while United travel to Norwich City for a Sunday lunchtime kickoff.
City, with Argentine Carlos Tevez back in town after his unauthorised trip back home, lead the table with 60 points from 25 matches, followed by United on 58, Spurs on 53 and Arsenal on 43, level with troubled Chelsea who are at home to relegation-threatened Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.
For most of the last 20 years Arsenal have been the dominant force with Spurs travelling to play them more in hope than expectation.
But now Spurs start as favourites and a win would give them their first League double over Arsenal since 1992-93.
Arsenal, beaten 4-0 at AC Milan in the Champions League and 2-0 at Sunderland in the FA Cup in their last two matches, are facing a seventh successive season without a trophy.
Coach Arsene Wenger’s future has been the topic of much speculation after an erratic season which has left them battling with Chelsea, Newcastle United and Liverpool for fourth place and another shot at the Champions League, their natural footballing habitat for the last 16 seasons.
Spurs have more to play for than just local bragging rights.
A victory would not only keep their title hopes alive but would also send a clear message they are beginning to accumulate the mental steel that for so long was at the very core of Arsenal’s DNA.
However, no-one in the blue half of north London will under-estimate Arsenal knowing that victory would pull them out of the doldrums and give the Gunners renewed hope they can catch Spurs and finish higher than them again as they have done every season since 1996.
Spurs striker Jermain Defoe told LBC Radio on Wednesday he was confident Spurs can repeat their 2-1 win over Arsenal at White Hart Lane.
“It’s going to be a difficult game but I’m confident, obviously, with the way we’re playing,” he said. “We’ve got a really strong squad now and everyone’s playing well.
“Everyone’s firing and team spirit is fantastic which I think is always important if you want to try to achieve something.
“You can’t write Arsenal off. In football it’s always the next game, you can change it in the next one. Playing against us, it’ll be a different Arsenal from what people have seen over the last few weeks.”
Former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor missed Spurs’ FA Cup draw at Stevenage after twisting his knee in training but is expected to be fit for what promises to be a hostile return to his old club.
He is likely to be partnered by Rafael van der Vaart, who is back in full training after recovering from a calf injury that has kept him out of the last three games.
Arsenal, meanwhile, will hope centre-back Laurent Koscielny recovers from a knee injury but midfielder Aaron Ramsey looks like missing the game with an ankle problem.
Chelsea have gone five games without a win and typical defensive lapses were at the heart of their 3-1 defeat by Napoli in the Champions League on Tuesday.
There is widespread talk of dressing room unrest between senior players and coach Andre Villas-Boas and their Champions League place, once virtually guaranteed, is under severe threat.
Chelsea have a chance to banish the blues when they play Bolton who they have beaten in their last eight league and cup meetings, including a 5-1 win at the Reebok in October. They will again be without skipper John Terry who faces up to two months out with a knee injury.