Never been so much at stake, says Wenger

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The Independent Online

The difference between today's north London derby and so many others in recent seasons is that for once the clubs themselves appear to be in agreement with the television hype that this is their biggest game of the season.

With Arsenal in fifth and Tottenham fourth and laying siege to the last Champions' League position, Arsène Wenger yesterday said he had never been involved in such a high-stakes derby.

Thierry Henry called the clash "explosive", and Robbie Keane talked it up as the biggest game of his four-year stint at Spurs.

"There was never a game with so much at stake for both teams," Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. "We are glad it's at Highbury. We have good morale and we are in a good situation and our confidence is high. We just want to win the game."

In a delicately poised situation, the Gunners lie four points behind their enemies and neighbours but with a game in hand. Win this and it will be advantage to the team in redcurrant, but any other result and the scales tip back in favour of Martin Jol's men contesting a Champions' League pre-qualifier in August.

The fly in the ointment for Spurs is that if they finish fourth and Arsenal win Europe's premier club competition, Spurs will carry off the booby prize of a Uefa Cup place instead. The White Hart Lane club have hinted they will argue for a fifth English spot in the Champions' League, much as Liverpool fought and won the right to defend the trophy this season.

Understandably, Wenger is looking at killing that argument stone dead by securing fourth place, and the Frenchman signalled the importance of victory today: "That's our chance of fourth place gone if we don't win. Tottenham will have to lose one after that and draw one. It's not over but our chances would be damaged."

Henry himself was not backward in talking up the game. The French striker and the club's top scorer could be rested by Wenger today with Tuesday's return leg against Villarreal in the Champions' League semi-final to come, but his fighting comments betrayed an expectation of being involved. "This is a derby and traditionally one of the games of the season," he said. "This time it's even more important. Fourth place is up for grabs for the next Champions' League campaign.

"It will be explosive. We absolutely have to win. Spurs will come with the bit between their teeth."

Wenger, who repeated he wants Robert Pires to sign a one-year extension despite a two-year offer from Villarreal sitting on the table, is faced with a dilemma of priority. Victory in the semi-final in Spain and he is one match from automatic qualification for next year's competition. However, that one match will likely pitch his youngsters against Barce-lona, Ronaldinho et al.

Little surprise then, he feels it easier to qualify through their domestic form. "Winning the Champions' League is the harder route back into that competition than through the Premiership. But if we beat Spurs we are in a strong position. We could then afford a draw after that."

Wenger was giving nothing away with regards to his team selection, saying: "I don't know yet who will play. I have an idea but I will leave that until [the] morning. I will see who has played how many games. I feel everybody should be available but with another massive game three days later I have to build a team to win today but without harming our chances to win on Tuesday."

For Keane, Spurs' Irish forward, this game is crucial. His Champions' League experience is limited to a qualifier for Internazionale in 2000 that the Italians lost against the Swedish side Helsingborg. That taste left him wanting more.

"You want to get into the best competition and we would be gutted if we missed out. Hopefully, come 7 May we'll be in the Champions' League but it's going to be tough," he said.

Keane, who equalised from the spot two years ago in the 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane - but Arsenal secured the Premiership that day - added: "Not losing this game is the most important thing today. If we play the way we've played this season we should have a great chance of that. We're looking over our shoulders - that's only natural - but we're trying to concentrate on ourselves. But this will be the biggest game for me since I've been here."

Spurs have not played in Europe since 1999, when they qualified for a short-lived Uefa Cup campaign and the joke doing the rounds in north London is that even the squirrel that made a brief appearance at Highbury on Wednesday night has more Champions' League experience than Jol's charges.

If the Dutchman's side get the result they want this afternoon, that gag's longevity will depend on Arsenal succeeding in Europe. And if that happens, expect the click-click sound of the opening of briefcases belonging to Spurs lawyers.

Battles of north London Five memorable meetings

* Tottenham 0-1 Arsenal

3 May 1971, First Division

Ray Kennedy's headed goal earns Arsenal the title at White Hart Lane, and the Gunners clinch the Double five days later in the Cup against Liverpool.

* Tottenham 3-1 Arsenal 14 April 1991, FA Cup semi-final

Two from Gary Lineker and an unstoppable free-kick from Paul Gascoigne take Spurs into the final, where they defeated Nottingham Forest to claim the FA Cup for an eighth time.

* Arsenal 1-0 Tottenham

4 April 1993, FA Cup semi-final

Tony Adams' header gives Arsenal revenge two years later in a heated game which sees Lee Dixon sent off. The Gunners overcome Sheffield Wednesday in the final, and again in the League Cup, to seal a knock-out trophy double.

* Arsenal 2-1 Tottenham

8 April 2001, FA Cup semi-final

Spurs take an early lead through Gary Doherty but a Patrick Vieira equaliser and a winner from Robert Pires sends Arsenal to Cardiff in what turns out to be Sol Campbell's last appearance for the White Hart Lane club... before heading across north London to their rivals.

* Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal

25 April 2004, Premiership

Pires and Vieira were on the scoresheet again, giving Arsenal a 2-0 lead. A goal from Jamie Redknapp and a Robbie Keane penalty earn Spurs a point but it is not enough to prevent Arsenal from winning the League title.

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