Georgina Turner
Friday November 19th, 2010

Stomachs in North London have hosted colonies of butterflies this week: tomorrow brings the first league derby of the season, the reopening of hostilities proper for 2010-11. It may lack the nationalist color of El Clasico, the sectarian edge of the Old Firm derby or even the historical class friction of Milan's derby della Madonnina -- the North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET) makes do with stout territorial posturing -- but this is a 123-year-old matchup that still sets supporters' senses aquifer.

Derbies tend to boil down to kicking contests, shouting matches and gritty wars of attrition. Often fans would forego a 90-minute thriller so long as they can leave saying "At least we didn't lose to them," while eyeballing each other at the train station. Arsenal versus Tottenham has tended to feel a little different: bad results sting no less, but this is also a chance to determine which team is playing the more attractive soccer. This season, that's harder to call than it has been for a long time.

1993. Whitney Houston would always love you. Bill and Hilary moved into the White House. John Wayne Bobbitt inadvertently coined a new term. The Buffalo Bills lost the Super Bowl again. Feels like forever ago, doesn't it? That's when Spurs last won at Arsenal. Scant consolation that it's marginally better than the club's away record against the rest of the top three (last league win at Stamford Bridge: February 1990; at Old Trafford, December 1989).

Even at home, Tottenham fans have had to content themselves with one win in the last 10 league meetings. There have been glorious defeats (2004-05's 4-5 madness was impossible to take your eyes off), and inglorious draws (Arsenal won the 2003-04 title with an April 2-2 tie at White Hart Lane), and it's worth noting, for the sake of context, that Manchester United has only recorded two league wins at Arsenal in the past decade; Chelsea three. The Emirates isn't somewhere that points are always easily plundered. But with such a dire record away to the top three, it's inevitable that Spurs' progress will be measured by its progress in these fixtures.

Especially after beating Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane in April, before repeating the score line when Chelsea visited a few days later. Six goals in two recent Champions League matches against Internazionale prove that Tottenham has the ingredients to trouble "big sides." Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion have beaten Arsenal at home this season. If not now, then when?

"Logically, there's nothing to this stuff about bogey teams, but this is a bogey match," says Alan Fisher, blogger on Tottenham On My Mind. "Every year, we say: 'this is the one, this time' ... but as soon as they score, and they will on Saturday, we crumble. Still, being positive, [Luka] Modric is coming back to his best, [Jermaine] Jenas was excellent on Saturday and in [Gareth] Bale and [Rafael] van der Vaart we have match-winners who can turn a game. Or perhaps we need an outrageous slice of luck."

It's hardly news that Spurs has struggled with going behind away from home, at Arsenal or elsewhere, but it's interesting that following defeat to Newcastle, Arsene Wenger highlighted how much better Arsenal fares at home if it gets the first goal. "Everybody plays tight here," he mused. "It's all right when we score the first goal, but as long as they can sit deep we have problems playing through them if we are not at full power."

The good news -- for both sets of fans, and neutrals -- is that Tottenham is unlikely to approach the match that way. With Aaron Lennon rated very doubtful (hamstring), Redknapp will probably stick with the 4-4-2 formation that battered Blackburn Rovers for 80 minutes last weekend. It's a risk, but Spurs' best performances have been built on an attacking ethos. Using both Roman Pavlyuchenko and Peter Crouch (Jermain Defoe may just about be fit enough for the bench) makes Tottenham less predictable going forward.

Plus, it would be a gamble to rely on the fortitude of an injury-disrupted defense. Redknapp has had to field at least seven different central defensive partnerships in the league, and that showed in the chaotic manner in which Spurs conceded to Wigan, West Ham and Bolton. Former Arsenal captain William Gallas' experience was supposed to steady the ship but instead, he's been one of the weakest performers. And now covering central midfielder Tom Huddlestone is out for three months (ankle). Arsenal's front six will be salivating.

"I feel very confident about this one. I don't remember the last time we lost two home games on the spin," says Paul Williams, of Arsenal Mania (you have to go right back to 1997, when Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers won at Highbury). "Spurs have never looked like winning at our place. They have better players this season and are better placed to have a go at us, [but] we have better players than them, and we have the carrot of going top of the league if we win."

Arsenal's home defeats (against WBA and Newcastle) were sloppy, lethargic performances, and it's unthinkable that that should happen in this fixture. The two consecutive away wins (versus Wolves and Everton) that Arsenal has notched up since have seen it better able to cope with the close, energetic attentions of teams looking to limit its options and time on the ball. Those matches, and last month's 3-0 win over Manchester City, demonstrated a killer instinct that hasn't always functioned reliably. Arsenal punished the disarray in City's back line after Dedryck Boyata's dismissal with neat passing and lethal finishing.

Winning the battle in central midfield could be crucial to the success of either team. Jenas (who has a habit of performing well against Arsenal) and Modric will be charged with getting the ball out to Van der Vaart and Bale, but must also protect a defense that hasn't kept a clean sheet since the first day of the season, and hasn't kept one at Arsenal since 1998.

The Gunners have also stuttered defensively (though first choice Laurent Koscielny returns from suspension for this game), but have benefitted from strong performances from midfield anchor Alex Song. Cesc Fabregas hasn't had his usual metronomic influence of late, but Jack Wilshere (expected to be over a slight back injury) and Samir Nasri -- who orchestrated France's victory over England on Wednesday -- have been superb. However steady Spurs' Younes Kaboul has been since stepping in, the sight of him and Gallas exposed is all the invitation players in this form need.

Marouane Chamakh has scored five league goals and looks like keeping his place at the center of Arsenal's front three, though Wenger's options are boosted by the return of Robin van Persie, who made an immediate impact off the bench at Tottenham in April. The manager saw the Dutch forward come through 45 minutes against Turkey this week, concluding that: "he looked quite sharp." Arsenal is, unsurprisingly, 4/6 favorite with bookmakers.

"They're a great side and certainly they'll be well up for it against us," said Peter Crouch. "But we've got enough ability to go to the Emirates and get a result. We've got nothing to be scared of. On our day we're capable of beating anyone." Arsenal is already five points better off than it was from the same fixtures last season; the engine is purring. After a 17-year wait, and with 10 players -- including the first choice center-back pairing and two of four strikers -- currently on the injury list, it really would be some day for Spurs to shake off the hoodoo.

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