There is very little for Tottenham to celebrate in their recent rivalry with Arsenal, but Harry Redknapp demonstrated yesterday, that does not mean you cannot still wind up the old enemy. The Spurs manager claimed that Arsenal were not real contenders for the Premier League title because their young team would be no match for the experience of Chelsea and Manchester United.
Meanwhile, Arsène Wenger was pointing out that if Spurs ever wish to be considered Arsenal's equals then all they have to do is win three Premier League titles and qualify for the Champions League 12 years in a row. By his demeanour, you would not have guessed that the Arsenal manager expects that to happen soon.
The knackered old cliché goes that in a derby game the formbook goes out the proverbial window. Well, not in the north London derby. In north London, the formbook says that Arsenal do not lose to Spurs and that has rung true for the last 10 years, since Spurs last beat Arsenal in the league in November 1999.
Having drawn both league games with Arsenal last season, the first a thrilling comeback to 4-4 in October, Redknapp is better qualified than most of his predecessors to cast a critical eye over Wenger's team. His assessment of them was polite but it hinted at a distrust of the principles of youth that Wenger has adhered to, as well as a frostiness towards the manager in charge of them.
"They [Arsenal] are potential winners but personally I don't think they will win it, that's only my opinion," Redknapp said. "I'm not writing them off, they've got a good chance. But I think the winners will come from Chelsea or Manchester United. I've been wrong a million times before, I could well be wrong again, but I see those two.
"I still think that Chelsea are powerful. They are men, you just feel they have that power. I think they will take all the beating. Even the other night [against Bolton in the Carling Cup], they made loads of changes. They bring people in and look at the people who came into the team. They're proper players, ain't they?
"I don't think it's a soft centre [at Arsenal], I think it's maybe a little bit of a lack of experience still. They're not an experienced team, it's still a young team, a fantastic young team. But I just feel Chelsea and United, they have players who have been there and done it all and been the full course in the championship race. And Liverpool, I'm not writing them off but I do fancy one of the two."
Redknapp has faced Wenger 23 times as a manager and beaten him just once, as West Ham manager, in October 1999. Nothing he said yesterday suggested that the two men enjoy much of a bond apart from a post-match glass of wine. "He helped me at Portsmouth when he loaned me [Armand] Traoré," Redknapp said. "I find him OK." He pointed out that it was Wenger's scouts, not him, who was finding all those bright young players, "No disrespect but Arsène isn't standing on Hackney Marshes is he?"
Today Redknapp has key players missing. Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric are injured, Jermain Defoe is suspended and much will depend on Peter Crouch and David Bentley. Last October, Bentley scored a brilliant goal at the Emirates but his fall from grace since then means that is his only league goal for the club. This is as good a chance as any to resurrect what little, if anything, is left of his Spurs career.
Bentley used to be regarded as the superstar that Wenger wrongly let go. Now he is the waster that Arsène was right to get shot of. The truth is probably somewhere in between: not quite good enough for Arsenal but, if he gets his act together, he should have a decent career. There was too much praise too soon for the 25-year-old or, as Wenger said yesterday: "When I was playing a guy had to play well for five years and then eventually someone would say 'He's not a bad player'."
As for Robbie Keane's claim that the Spurs squad was stronger than Arsenal's, Wenger tried very hard not to pretend he was not annoyed by it and almost succeeded. "Let people talk. There's nothing else to say," he said. "What is important is how we play. I don't share that opinion at all." Given that it was the week that Fran Merida, Kieran Gibbs, Craig Eastmond et al knocked Liverpool out of the Carling Cup, the timing did not exactly help Keane's point.
On the relative strengths of the two clubs, Wenger was contemptuous without ever being impolite. Asked the nebulous old question of whether Spurs would ever be considered a bigger club than Arsenal, he responded with his own question. "How do you measure the dimension of a club? Success. Exactly. So if you look at success historically they have a lot of work to do. We have been in the Champions League 12 consecutive years so once they have done that they can say, of course, that they are similar."
The clue is in the word similar. It was a more diplomatic way of rephrasing Sir Alex Ferguson's promise that Manchester City would never be bigger than his club in his lifetime. "You can never say 'Never'," Wenger said. "They have the potential, the supporters, they are a big club. But what comes next is the consistency of achievement. At the moment nobody would deny that Arsenal is in front of them."
There have been 13 managers in charge of Spurs since Wenger took over. During that time they have tried to replicate his system by employing the former Arsenal scout Damien Comolli as their director of football. They are building a new stadium that, but for one stand, is virtually identical to the Emirates. Yes, Spurs have done their best to beat their old enemy at their own game but if they really want to put Arsenal in their place they need to beat them today.
Tottenham's decade of pain: How Arsenal won upper hand
* Tottenham's run of misery
19 Mar 2000 Arsenal 2 (Armstrong og, Henry) Spurs 1 (Armstrong)
18 Dec 2000 Spurs 1 (Rebrov) Arsenal 1 (Vieira)
31 Mar 2001 Arsenal 2 (Pires, Henry) Spurs 0
17 Nov 2001 Spurs 1 (Poyet) Arsenal 1 (Pires)
6 Apr 2002 Arsenal 2 (Ljungberg, Lauren pen) Spurs 1 (Sheringham pen)
16 Nov 2002 Arsenal 3 (Henry, Ljungberg, Wiltord) Spurs 0
15 Dec 2002 Spurs 1 (Ziege) Arsenal 1 (Pires pen)
8 Nov 2003 Arsenal 2 (Pires, Ljungberg) Spurs 1 (Anderton)
25 Apr 2004 Spurs 2 (Redknapp, Keane pen) Arsenal 2 (Vieira, Pires)
13 Nov 2004 Spurs 4 (Naybet, Defoe, King, Kanoute) Arsenal 5 (Henry, Lauren pen, Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires)
25 Apr 2005 Arsenal 1 (Reyes) Spurs 0
29 Oct 2005 Spurs 1 (King) Arsenal 1 (Pires)
22 Apr 2006 Arsenal 1 (Henry) Spurs 1 (Keane)
2 Dec 2006 Arsenal 3 (Adebayor, Gilberto 2 pens) Spurs 0
21 Apr 2007 Spurs 2 (Keane, Jenas) Arsenal 2 (Toure, Adebayor)
15 Sep 2007 Spurs 1 (Bale) Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 2, Fabregas)
22 Dec 2007 Arsenal 2 (Adebayor, Bendtner) Spurs 1 (Berbatov)
29 Oct 2008 Arsenal 4 (Silvestre, Gallas, Adebayor, Van Persie) Spurs 4 (Bentley, Bent, Jenas, Lennon)
8 Feb 2009 Spurs 0 Arsenal 0
*Games 19 Arsenal wins 10 Draws 9
Five Tottenham near-misses
*18 Dec 2000: Spurs 1 Arsenal 1
Sergei Rebrov put Spurs ahead and Neil Sullivan performed heroics in goal before Patrick Vieria rescued a point.
*8 Nov 2003: Arsenal 2 Spurs 1
Darren Anderton gave Spurs the lead for over an hour before Robert Pires and Ljungberg turned things around.
*29 Oct 2005: Spurs 1 Arsenal 1
A Ledley King header raised home hopes, only for Pires to level matters late on.
*22 Apr 2006: Arsenal 1 Spurs 1
Thierry Henry's equalised with six minutes left after Robbie Keane's opener.
*22 Dec 2007: Arsenal 2 Spurs 1
Keane missed a penalty as substitute Nicklas Bendtner scored the winner from the bench. James Mariner