Is Tottenham vs. Arsenal the biggest North London derby ever?
In an era when ordinary games of football are hyped up to increase television audiences, describing a match as "huge" ceases to have much meaning.
These days, every game with any meaning is a "must-win," every game towards the end of a campaign is a "cup final." When a genuinely massive game comes along, then, it's sometimes easy to ignore quite how significant it is -- the hype has a "cry wolf" effect.
Tottenham's meeting with Arsenal this weekend, though, is a genuinely enormous game for both sides. It is, in the words of former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, "the biggest north London derby we've ever seen." And, while that might sound like hyperbole, he's probably correct.
This is London's biggest rivalry, but rather than "local pride" and "bragging rights," this time the clubs are genuinely playing for the title. Leicester, of course, have a points advantage over both. But this is a real six-pointer: If Spurs win, they're six points clear and Arsenal are arguably out of the title race. If Arsenal win, they're in better shape to win the title considering they have easier remaining fixtures. This is massive.
For such a heated rivalry between two traditionally successful sides, it's peculiar that there has never been a Cup Final between them. We've had three FA Cup semi-finals, most notably at Wembley in 1991, with Paul Gascoigne's famous long-range free-kick opening the scoring, and three League Cup semi-finals, too. Never, though, have these sides been directly playing for a trophy.
The league situation is naturally more complicated. It's unusual enough that these sides will finish in such strong finishing positions. Both finished in the top four in 2009-10 and 2011-12, but Arsenal were in the title race in the former, Spurs briefly in it during the latter. They weren't both competing.
The 2003-04 season saw Arsenal win the title at White Hart Lane, but then Arsenal needed only a point -- and had four further games remaining. Spurs didn't want Arsenal to win it on their turf, certainly, and didn't want to see their ex-captain Sol Campbell celebrating as part of the soon-to-be "Invincibles," but Arsenal were going to lift the title eventually. Tottenham had only been hoping to delay the inevitable.
Both finished in strong positions in 1981-82, 1986-87 and 1989-90, but on each occasion they were a significantly long way behind the eventual champions. Therefore, you need to go back to 1970-71 to find the last league match even vaguely comparable to this weekend's derby.
The 1971 encounter was similar to the 2004 game: Arsenal won the league at White Hart Lane. The difference, though, was that this was the final day of the campaign, and Tottenham, who finished third, had the opportunity to deny the Gunners and send the title heading for Leeds United instead. A goalless draw was enough for Arsenal, but Ray Kennedy's late winner meant Arsenal went away with all three points.
That was Spurs simply trying to play the role of party-pooper rather than potential champion, however; the classic sign of an underdog in any rivalry. Therefore, it's worth looking back as far as 1951-52, when Spurs and Arsenal finished second and third (both four points behind Manchester United) for a meeting of similar importance. Even then, their final league meeting took place in early February, when the sides were third and sixth in the league.
The other notable league meeting is from all the way back in 1933-34. That season, Arsenal finished as champions, recovering from the untimely mid-season death of legendary manager Herbert Chapman, while Spurs impressively managed third place in their first campaign back in the First Division. A 3-1 Tottenham win at Highbury in January knocked Arsenal off the top of the table, and put Spurs only three points behind. But it wasn't exactly a title decider.
This might just be the biggest derby ever.
Arsenal's recent advantage over Tottenham led to the creation of "St Totteringham's Day" -- when Arsenal fans celebrated the point at which Spurs could no longer finish above Arsenal. Although this originated on Arsenal fan websites in the early 2000s, it gained much more attention during Arsenal's trophy-less years between 2005 and 2014, almost as a compensation for the lack of celebration elsewhere. While essentially a classic example of one set of fans trying to wind up their rivals, it always seemed small-time and an example of both sides' underachievement: Arsenal should have been more concerned about finishing above the big boys, while Tottenham's track record of finishing behind Arsenal for two decades is embarrassing. Both could, and should, do better.
There's a distinct possibility there will be no St Totteringham's Day this year. Tottenham currently appear a better team than Arsenal: more organised without possession, more dynamic with the ball, physically superior and tactically more flexible. Tottenham have scored five more goals than Arsenal, and conceded six fewer. They're not ahead in the league table by fluke.
By virtue of being the traditional underdog over the past couple of decades, and having to put up with their rivals' occasional success, it feels as if the derby currently means more to Tottenham. The atmosphere towards the end of last season's 2-1 victory over Arsenal, sealed by two Harry Kane goals, was genuinely remarkable. White Hart Lane is a ground famous for being moody, gloomy and pessimistic, but that game felt significant in the recent history of Tottenham Hotspur, it felt like there was a winning mentality evident from the players.
It will nevertheless pale into insignificance if Spurs can record another home derby victory over Arsenal this weekend. Win this, and Tottenham will have a great chance of winning the league too. It's the biggest-ever north London derby -- and that's because it's about so much more than just the derby.