By Jay Jaffa
When it is all said and done, ask a Tottenham or Arsenal fan how much their rivals matter and you'll receive similar very answers. Sure, while the season is fresh, everyone likes to think they have bigger fish to fry, dreams of European success and a Premier League challenge. The reality is more stark, particularly this year as the north London pair battle for the final Champions League spot.
I've had it for years - the baiting from an uncle born on the red side, the 'same old Tottenham' gibes as the Lilywhites inevitably fade and fall at one of several hurdles at the back-end of the season. Like a pole vaulter arching his back, just nudging the bar on his way over, Spurs are used to the lingering feeling of regret, of an agonizing near miss as his rival wraps up victory with a final triumphant leap.
It happened last season as former Tottenham goalkeeper Marton Fulop contrived to hand Arsenal a pair of soft goals in a rare outing for West Brom. It happened in 2006 as the infamous lasagna-gate swept the carpet beneath Tottenham as Arsene Wenger's side clinched fourth at the death - a position they had not occupied for over five months. We are almost certain to have a repeat of the drama this Sunday as Spurs host Sunderland and Arsenal travel to Newcastle.
The last time Tottenham held the bragging rights was in 1995-96, 17 seasons ago. Arsene Wenger has never finished behind Spurs. Never. Even if his legacy is tainted by the auctioning off of his stars and blunt finishes to promising campaigns, this will prevail. 'Forever in our shadow' as fans like to proclaim.
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In a dark twist, Chelsea would not only go on to enjoy what felt like Tottenham's place in the Champions League, they would then gatecrash the more minor competition at the halfway mark and win the trophy - how's that for rubbing your face in it?
But back to north London where Andre Villas-Boas - a young up-and-comer who replaced the popular, if flawed, Harry Redknapp - was entrusted with the Spurs job. The start was rocky as two points from nine would attest and the knives were drawn before September had even been seen in. #AVBOUT trended on Twitter and everyone wondered if we'd stepped into the twilight zone.
At the Emirates, things were not much better. Wenger's side drew with Sunderland and Stoke, failing to trouble the scorers in either game. All the while, Manchester United and Manchester City embarked on what many thought would be a titanic battle for the Premier League. It wasn’t; United walked it.
I've alluded to trophies haven't I? Mention silverware and Arsenal in the same paragraph and you feel like you are walking on eggshells these days. The aforementioned uncle remains defiant; the only thing worth winning these days is the league and the Champions League, he believes.
Even the FA Cup is an after though, which was just as well as a resilient Blackburn side stole a 1-0 at Emirates Stadium in February, adding to the embarrassment of losing to League Two Bradford in the Capital One Cup.
This was Wenger's nadir - the first prolonged spell in his reign that fans called for him to resign. Friends of mine, seasoned supporters, people whose opinion I value more than a specialist Arsenal writer for example, believed it was time for Wenger to leave.
The #WengerOUT brigade were spitting feathers on social networking sites led by the intolerable Piers Morgan whilst the Gareth Bale XI continued their ascent to the promised land.
But with Spurs also out of both domestic cups by the second month of 2013, any pretensions of silverware were washing away on both sides of the divide.
Success in Europe? Arsenal botched their group and were handed a lesson in clinical, incisive finishing by Bayern Munich, while Spurs stumbled into the quarter-finals before finally getting the pasting their European displays deserved (they won just four times in 12 Europa League matches).
So success was only fleetingly on the cards, leaving the two sides - consistently the most competitive rival teams in England's top flight - vying it out for the final Champions League spot.
The first meeting in November was as thrilling for a neutral as it was tormenting for Tottenham. Leading 1-0, an Emmanuel Adebayor red card and a whirlwind 20 minutes saw Wenger’s side take the upper hand as Arsenal ran out 5-2 winners.
In the reverse fixture, it was Tottenham’s turn to claim victory. But this felt like more than three points - there were just 10 games remaining and Spurs held a seven point lead.
Rather than knock the stuffing out of Wenger though, the derby loss invigorated his battle-weary charges. Instead of whimpering over the line, Arsenal rallied, firstly knocking two past Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena (just their second home defeat all campaign) before embarking on a sensational run of league results.
At the rate Arsenal have won points (2.55 per game since the Tottenham loss) they would have been title contenders and on course for 96 points. As soon as the pressure of ending a trophy drought was lifted, the Gunners came alive. It feels as though the prize of victory - finishing ahead of Spurs - has empowered the players, as if they owe the supporters and Wenger.
It may not be a trophy, but Arsenal will relish finishing fourth this season and I for one know that unbearable relatives will savour it the most. As Sunday will show - the north London rivalry has never been more alive and while Spurs fans may hope it is third time lucky on the final day of the season, Arsenal supporters will be confident of wrapping up a mediocre campaign in the most satisfying manner possible.
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