It is almost 15 years ago since the infamous north London derby of November 1999 at White Hart Lane that ended with two red cards, 10 bookings and an away dressing room that was wrecked twice.
The decisive second goal in Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 win that day was a free-kick brilliantly executed by Tim Sherwood, the man currently in charge of Spurs as they go into battle against the old enemy.
The first returnee to the Arsenal dressing room that day was Freddie Ljungberg, sent off for what the referee thought was a head-butt on David Ginola. Those who recall the occasion, say Ljungberg took out his frustration on the tables and kit bags, leaving the place in a mess before heading for the showers.
No sooner had Vic Akers, the long-serving Arsenal kitman cleared up, than Emmanuel Petit was tearing the place apart once again, having had to come off injured. The accusation at the time was that Sherwood had elbowed the Frenchman. Akers refused to clear up twice, so when finally Martin Keown burst in, sent off in the last minute and ready to vent his anger, he encountered a scene of devastation and nothing left for him to take his frustration out on.
In those days, Spurs lived for getting a result over their rivals and, although they have set their sights higher in recent times, things are not that much different now. Lose tomorrow and they can probably bid farewell to a chance of making the Champions League places. Win and Sherwood’s position becomes that much easier; their league run-in that much more hopeful.
It is another big north London derby, especially for the Spurs manager who has been in the job less than three months. It is usually Arsène Wenger’s way to show about as much interest in the fortunes of Tottenham as one imagines he does in gardening or rugby league, but he defended Sherwood more than once.
Wenger was not impressed by the behaviour of the Benfica coach Jorge Jesus who he said had “provoked [Sherwood] in an unfair way]” on Thursday night. Sherwood is the 10th Spurs manager, excluding caretakers, since Wenger took charge of Arsenal, and the Frenchman advocated the benefit of a little patience for rookie managers.
“I’m always pleading for stability,” Wenger said. “Maybe you could say I’m pleading for myself! I always think technical stability is important. But it becomes more and more difficult because in every single game there is a trial taking place, based on what the manager has done right or wrong. The stability will certainly be much more difficult.
“I don’t know Sherwood as a coach. I knew him as a player because I am a long time in this job. I like the fact that he has learned his job and gets his chance. In England you rightly complain that young managers don’t get a chance. When you get one you have to support him.”
There was even a diplomatic joke about the question of Sherwood’s childhood loyalties to Arsenal. “That’s why I have so much sympathy for him,” Wenger said.
The day-to-day trial feels about right as a description of Sherwood’s current existence now, with the two straight defeats to Chelsea and Benfica, unrest among the supporters and a derby looming. On Thursday, Sherwood said that a game against Arsenal was the best antidote for his players’ current slump, and certainly there will be nowhere for them to hide.
As a Spurs player, Sherwood knew only too well the dominance of Arsenal. That win over them in November 1999 was the only one of his four-year playing career at the club, and the last one until Juande Ramos’s Spurs won a League Cup tie more than eight years later. One year ago, when the two sides met at White Hart Lane, a victory for Spurs consolidated third place and put them seven points clear of Arsenal in fifth, but they were overhauled eventually.
This time, with Spurs in fifth place, six points behind Arsenal – effectively seven because of goal difference –and having played a game more, defeat tomorrow will make catching their rivals all but impossible. Arsenal have marginally the more difficult run-in (Chelsea away, Manchester City at home) than Spurs but there is not much in it.
This Arsenal team also have the memory of their run-in last season, eight wins out of 10, which meant they claimed fourth place on the last day of the season. “We have the strength,” Wenger said. “Everybody at the club is focused on this game and for the rest of the season; to do something that turns the season. There are moments in a game and there are moments in a season where you have to be there. This is one of them.”
There are concerns about the injury situation that now extends to Mesut Özil, out for four weeks, Wenger said. The German joins Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby among the sidelined. Wenger has told his medical department to look into the reasons why there have been so many problems among his midfield/attacking players.
There are problems for Spurs too, with Sandro and Kyle Walker both coming off early against Benfica with injuries and the likes of Michael Dawson, Vlad Chiriches and Etienne Capoue already missing. “I still think it always takes time when you bring in many new players,” Wenger said, “but you cannot say Spurs have had a bad season, they have had a good season and they are there. Like everyone else, like us, they have gone through good and bad periods.”
Come the next derby after this, providing the new contract is signed, Wenger may be facing his 11th different Spurs manager. In a changing world, he will be past the 1,000-game mark and a byword for stability. Did he ever think he would get there? “No, not at all – we are in a job where you try to do well in the next game. Then, step by step, sometimes you get to 1,000.”
Taxi for Bendtner Dane looks to be on his way
Arsène Wenger suggested Nicklas Bendtner will not play for Arsenal again after the striker’s drunken night out in Copenhagen ended in more lurid headlines.
The Arsenal manager said that Bendtner had not obtained permission to go to Denmark, although he would not comment on reports that the player removed his belt and whipped a taxi, calling the driver a “little whore”.
Asked how the latest incident would affect his view of Bendtner, Wenger commented: “Look, he’s at the end of the contract at the end of the season.”