How Tottenham closed the gap to bitter rivals Arsenal

Years of hard work means that Sunday’s derby presents Spurs with the opportunity to move seven points clear of their great rivals and secure a place as north London’s top club

By Greg Stobart

Andre Villas-Boas may have only been Tottenham’s manager for eight months but there is no doubt he has already bought in to the importance of the club’s rivalry with Arsenal ahead of Sunday’s north London derby.

The Portuguese used his pre-match press conference to suggest that the fixture is alongside Manchester United’s rivalry with Liverpool as the biggest fixture in English football, highlighting the significance of the match to his team as they battle with Arsenal for a top-four finish this season.

The bitter rivals will kick-off with Tottenham four points ahead of the Gunners in the race for Champions League football with 11 league games to play this season.

Yet even if Spurs win, neither their players nor supporters will get ahead of themselves with memories still raw of the 10-point advantage they conceded to their fiercest enemies last season, which eventually cost them a place in the Champions League.

A win on Sunday would take Spurs a step closer to finishing above the Gunners in the Premier League for the first time since 1995, a feat never achieved since Arsene Wenger’s appointment in 1996.

There is no doubt, though, that Tottenham have been bridging the north London divide in recent years, finishing one place behind Arsenal in five of the last seven seasons.

In many respects, Spurs have followed the example set by Arsenal under Wenger to build a side competing for regular Champions League football while simultaneously looking to boost the club’s long-term prospects with major infrastructure projects.

Tottenham do not have Arsenal’s 60,000-seater stadium and have only one lucrative Champions League campaign behind them compared to the Gunners’ 15 consecutive seasons in Europe’s elite competition.

The gap has been closed with more than a little help by Arsenal’s eight years without a trophy, the result of Wenger’s failure to rebuild a competitive side, and some wise decisions made in the White Hart Lane boardroom.

Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, is a huge admirer of former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, who has even been a guest of Tottenham’s at the north London derby since leaving Emirates Stadium in 2007.

In the transfer market, Levy has followed Dein’s example by, in general, targeting young players with potential to improve and increase in value. It has allowed the club to make and reinvest huge profits from the sale of players like Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modric. Gareth Bale, signed for £7 million from Southampton, will cost at least £50m if he is sold this summer.

Levy has also made, eventually, shrewd managerial appointments. Harry Redknapp was the right man to lift Spurs from the bottom of the table in 2008 and turn them in to European contenders, while Villas-Boas is the modern, dynamic and proactive coach who can take the club to the next level.

Villas-Boas and the squad work during the week at the club’s €46m state-of-the-art training centre in Enfield, which opened last year and is already reaping the benefits, not least in terms of injury prevention and recuperation.

The training centre is also considered a symbol of Tottenham’s ambition and was a major factor in attracting summer signings including Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen, with the latter a subject of interest from Arsenal.

The major issue on the horizon for Spurs is the paradox of requiring a new stadium to compete regularly while at the same time needing to carefully manage costs in order to finance the €460m project.

Wenger was the perfect man to steer Arsenal through their lean times after the construction of the Emirates loaded the club with debt. Spurs must find a way to make sure they have a world-class team to put in their shiny 56,000 proposed stadium – which, as it happens, looks very similar to their rivals’.

That means continuing to find gems in the transfer market, bringing players such as Steven Caulker through the Academy, and relying on quality coaching on the training ground.

Arsenal’s current wage budget of €165m is a stunning €58m more than that of their neighbours and, eventually, money will talk as Spurs will never to be able to attract the best players in the world while at White Hart Lane – and certainly with only Europa League football to offer potential signings.

Levy’s fierce negotiating skills and careful financial management means he is unlikely to put Tottenham’s future in jeopardy and regular Champions League football would go a long way to helping towards their on- and off-field goals.

Finding the next Gareth Bale before he is snapped up by the world’s biggest clubs may help too. For now, Spurs can be content that they are punching well above their weight and have bridged the gap to Arsenal to the extent that they start as favourites today.

But they have been in this position before, only to have thrown it away in spectacular fashion – they went ahead early on in the last two derbies, only to be crushed 5-2.

The real test will be how they manage the growing expectation among their own fans, and the increasing fear among their rivals. The feeling around north London is that this could be the most decisive clash in years.

Victory on Sunday would provide Spurs with more than just a seven-point advantage; it will show that this side are ready, willing and able to not only erase the gap to their rivals, but reverse it.

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