Arsène Wenger has said that the victors of tomorrow's clash between Arsenal and Tottenham will hold the advantage in the battle for a Champion's League place.
Tottenham are one point ahead of their bitter rivals after a turbulent start to the campaign for both sides.
The Gunners won last season’s corresponding fixture 5-2 in February on what turned out to be a pivotal afternoon in the race to finish in the top four.
Spurs were 2-0 up and marching towards a 13-point advantage before an astonishing comeback set Arsenal on the way to overturning that deficit and finishing third in the Premier League. Although Tottenham ended the season in fourth, they dropped into the Europa League as their Champions League place went to Chelsea after the Blues won Europe’s biggest prize.
The game comes much earlier in the season but Wenger believes it could prove equally decisive.
The Gunners have finished above Tottenham in each of the 16 seasons Wenger has been in charge and when asked if Spurs were closing the gap, the Frenchman replied: “I get that question every year. For some time, we were winning championships and they were not in the top four at all, so, of course, they’ve got closer in recent years. But fortunately we managed always to get above them.
“They have a good side every year and they are always a team who are now fighting with us and it’s important in the end, the consistency, and ¬certainly the results in the two derbies can have a big influence as well on the qualifying spots for the Champions League.
“It’s a very important week for many clubs. When you look at the number of players who pulled out of their international games, all over Europe, you realise that many teams go into decisive games, especially in the Champions League, it’s the fifth game. That’s usually a decider for the qualifier. You could see that this week, when you saw the number of players who were not in the international friendlies.”
Wenger’s team selection is complicated by a host of fitness doubts. Kieran Gibbs (thigh), Tomas Rosicky (tendon) and Abou Diaby (thigh) are all unavailable while seven players are facing fitness tests after a gruelling week with many international players travelling long distances.
Santi Cazorla arrived back from Panama last night after making the long journey to South America with Spain to remain an unused substitute while Olivier Giroud is a major doubt with hamstring and calf problems.
Wojciech Szczesny (ankle), Theo Walcott (muscle), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (hip), Mikel Arteta (hip) and Bacary Sagna (leg) are all to be assessed although it is understood the vast majority are expected to be risked tomorrow.
“It’s difficult to give you a clear idea of who will be available,” said Wenger. “There’s so many who need tests — I think we need a few doctors this morning.”
Andre Villas-Boas revealed Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has been stressing the importance of this fixture during the week but Wenger needs no such reminder of its magnitude.
“My chairman knows how much this game means to me and everybody at the club,” said Wenger, whose team have won two of their last seven League meetings with Spurs. “I played these derbies for 16 years now so at least I understand the importance of it.
“Usually it’s played at a frenetic pace with two teams who always go for it and that’s why you always see goals. It’s spectacular games and that’s what’s important as well — that the quality of the games has always been very good.
“I do not think it is specifically the change of manager who has changed the style, it is the change of players as well, they have lost two creative players in Rafael Van der Vaart and Luka Modric. They are more robust physically and still very dangerous on the counter attacks and the flanks with Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Emmanuel Adebayor, Jermain Defoe. They are quick, dangerous and sharp.”
Wenger revealed that he had to raise Arteta’s spirits after missing a penalty with the last kick of the game in the 3-3 draw against Fulham.
“Of course, he was completely upset,” he said. “One thing you cannot question from him is his motivation, his desire to win and to do well for the team.
“He took it because in my list, he is No1 on the list. If he had not done it, I would have questioned him ‘why did you not take it?’ That’s the risk. Lukas Podolski was No2, he was not on the pitch and Theo Walcott is No3 and he was not on the pitch. It was him or Cazorla. He is still my No1.”