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Divided loyalties, united view

The North London derby always boasts an added air of drama and excitement thanks to Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur sharing one of the most intense rivalries in English football. But Wednesday night's game between the two sides at the Emirates Stadium has a little something extra: a sense of unpredictability courtesy of Harry Redknapp.

Derby games are notorious for generating results that run against the form book, but without the surprise departure of Juande Ramos and the shock arrival of Redknapp, there was only ever going to be one result; another Spurs defeat.

However, last Sunday's home win over Bolton, which came less than 24 hours after Redknapp took the helm, has imbued in Tottenham a sense that anything is possible.

Former Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt, who had a 16-year spell at White Hart Lane, told ESPNsoccernet that his old club have a chance against Arsenal, but only in the unlikely event that the Gunners are off their game.

''Tottenham are total underdogs'', he says. "No-one expects them to get anything, and that may just give them a bit of freedom to play and cause a shock. Add that to what has happened over the last week and it might just give them that edge. And if Arsenal are over-confident in any way, shape or form, there is always an opportunity.

''If you look at Arsenal's form they look really strong. But if Arsenal are looking at this as an easy game, approaching it in a blasé way - which under Arsene Wenger you doubt - Spurs have a chance. This is a game where Arsenal will have to be on their game.

''Ultimately, what we are looking at is a team fighting to become champions and contesting the Champions League, against a side fighting to avoid relegation.''

However, Mabbutt, who lifted the FA Cup for Spurs in 1991 draws parallels with his side's famous win over Arsenal en route to cup glory that year.

''Similar things were said in 1991 when Arsenal were champions going into the semi,'' he says. ''We were on a terrible run and had only won a handful of games in the league that year. We were mid-table, not playing well and Arsenal were flying, full of confidence and we won. Funny things happen; they did in 1991 when Spurs had 'no chance'. So you never know.''

While that optimistic attitude might smack of clutching at straws, former Arsenal left-back Nigel Winterburn, who also played in that semi final at Wembley, agrees that Spurs have a chance against Arsenal, albeit a slim one.

''If Spurs get a good start and put Arsenal on the back foot they have a chance of turning in a good performance. But if Arsenal start well and heads drop it could be the same Spurs as we've seen so far this season. It's all about confidence'', he says.

''Looking at the way the two sides are playing and the strength of the two squads, I can't see Tottenham getting a result. The derbies have changed in the last couple of years, with the style of football both sides play. Years ago when I played the two sides were more evenly matched, right now Arsenal have forged ahead and are a long way clear [of Spurs] at the moment. If you look at the technical ability of the players I can't see anything other than an Arsenal win. But you can't take these games for granted.

''When Spurs beat Arsenal last season (a 5-1 win the Carling Cup) they pressured Arsenal from the front. I wonder if they have the players up front to do that? Do they have the midfield players to do that? I don't think Tottenham do at the moment.''

While some might expect two players so closely associated with clubs who share such a fierce rivalry to differ in their interpretation of the game, it is interesting that Mabbutt and Winterburn share similar views over the recent turmoil at Spurs, and both agree that Redknapp's arrival heralds a new dawn for the White Hart Lane club.

Both agree that the director of football/sporting director structure, as it was employed at Tottenham, was doomed to failure and that Ramos' position became untenable after his summer transfer targets were ignored and other players drafted in. As Mabbutt puts it: ''If you were a chef and wanted to make a Shepherd's Pie and your supplier gave you a chicken and some rice, you are going to struggle.''

However, both former players disagree with the popular view that the director of football role can never work in English football, arguing that the reason it has failed in the past comes down to a communication breakdown.

As Winterburn observes: ''The director of football role can work if that person is working alongside the manager. I.E. if the manager provides a list of players for that person to look at or the manager says 'Go find me three defensive midfielders for me to have a look at and I'll choose the one I like'. But if you've got someone picking the players ahead of the manager I just don't see how that can work.

''If a player is bought by the club and the manager doesn't quite fancy him, but he's asked to integrate that player as part of the team, it becomes very, very difficult. The manager has to have the final say or it's a recipe for disaster.''

Mabbutt, too, concurs that the idea itself is not a bad one. ''The concept is pretty good,'' he says. ''The demands of the Premier League puts a huge burden on a manager: Budgets, transfers, academy, youth team, reserves. You need back up and support to handle all that. A manager needs to be able to delegate, but can only do so if he trusts the people around him implicitly. If you are in a situation where someone is pulling in a different direction it undermines the manager. The manager should always have final say on all issues relating to transfers.''

Both Mabbutt and Winterburn also agree that what was lacking under Ramos was leadership on the pitch, although the former Spurs captain feels Redknapp will be quick to address this deficiency.

''Under Ramos it was clear that confidence was low,'' he says. ''Players are going to have bad games, you accept that. But this season everyone seemed to be having an off game, every player has been below their peak performance, the team has underachieved individually and, collectively, we have not been at the races.

''What you want to see are characters, '' he adds. ''Players with determination who might be having the worst game of their lives but they can still encourage those around them, clench their fist and fight for the team. We need leaders who can step up to the mark, come out of their shell, get a grip on things and say 'Come on guys', but we haven't had that leadership this season. In a lot of games Spurs have had 11 individuals playing as individuals helping themselves not each other.

''There are potential leaders at the club who are capable of communicating on the field. Harry will tell them: 'Win as a team, or fail as individuals'. Ultimately it's up to the team. But I believe Harry has the character to turn it around.''

Tottenham's last derby victory in the league came almost nine years ago in November 1999 when goals from Steffen Iversen and Tim Sherwood gave Spurs a 2-1 win.

If Redknapp can end that depressing streak on Wednesday there will be no shortage of others who will agree with Mabbutt's assessment.

•  ESPN Classic (Sky Channel 442) will be showing unforgettable North London derbies as part of the build up to Wednesday's game. For details visit:


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