Redknapp says Spurs are closing on Arsenal

Gunners may gamble with Van Persie's fitness as Tottenham hope to erase memory of FA Cup defeat
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The Independent Football

Harry Redknapp believes his Tottenham Hotspur side have closed the gap on Arsenal regardless of what happens in tonight's north London derby, and feels that next season they will be closer still.

Spurs' chances of finishing fourth and qualifying for next season's Champions League could hang on the result of the match at White Hart Lane. A victory would narrow the deficit on fourth-placed Manchester City to one point, but defeat would leave Tottenham struggling to reach fourth, especially as their next two games are against Chelsea and Manchester United. Arsenal, meanwhile, are third and aiming for a first title since 2004 with five matches left.

Whatever the result tonight though, Redknapp is delighted with the progress made by his team, who are almost certain to finish higher than last season's eighth place.

"When everyone is fit we have a squad that can match Arsenal," said Redknapp, who has a lengthy injury list to contend with. "At the start of the year, who would have seen us fourth, compared to the likes of Liverpool and Man City with their resources? It shows the massive strides we've made.

"It's been massive progress this year. We're much closer to Arsenal now and we'll be even closer next year. We've got players who are improving and can only get better."

Redknapp has selection problems in midfield with his defensive midfielder Wilson Palacios suspended, winger Aaron Lennon not fit to return from a groin problem and Niko Kranjcar on crutches after injuring his ankle in Sunday's defeat to Portsmouth in the FA Cup semi-final. The England midfielder Jermaine Jenas is also still missing with a groin problem.

Redknapp will also have to lift his squad after the surprise 2-0 defeat to Pompey at Wembley, which left Spurs without a chance of any silverware this season. However, he does not see confidence or fatigue – the semi-final having gone to extra time – being major problems.

"It's a London derby, we'll find the energy," he said. "We'll be OK, no excuses. We are in great form with one league defeat in 10. People always pick up on the negatives, we had a bad game on Sunday and it didn't go our way, but it was just one of those days.

"There's nothing we can do about it now. You put that behind you, pick yourself up, brush yourself down and start all over again. This is another game and the adrenalin of a London derby will carry the players through whether they are tired or not."

Arsène Wenger will have Robin van Persie on the bench for tonight's game and said yesterday that were it not for the Dutch striker's ankle ligament injury in November he would be have had a season to compare with Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney.

The Arsenal striker had scored eight goals for Arsenal this season before he injured himself in a friendly playing for the Netherlands against Italy. Van Persie has been in full training with the Arsenal team but is not yet match-fit and Wenger admitted that his inclusion represented a "gamble".

"That is the biggest frustration because he had started to compete as one of the best players in the world and suddenly he was out," Wenger said.

"You would have talked about Van Persie [in terms of Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney], of that I am sure. It's been a tough time for Robin over the last four months. But he's stronger and looking good for the future of his career. I'm happy he's back and what is most satisfying for me is that, in training, he looks as if he hasn't been out.

"He's worked very hard. He lacks match practice, but physically he's fit. There's always a gamble, I won't deny that, in such kind of decisions. But in his case we have been a bit more cautious because he's been out so long.

"The biggest gamble I took was [William] Gallas [against Barcelona at home] who was coming back from a muscular problem. With Robin, it was a joint. He's a very important player for this club."