Tottenham Hotspur will not win Sunday's north London derby. At least, that's the script: going into the last two meetings with Arsenal, Spurs have been the stronger outfit in the better circumstances. In February of last year, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was under the most vicious supporter scrutiny he had yet endured, while Tottenham had lost only two of the preceding 23 matches and was fresh from thumping Newcastle 5-0.
In the more recent encounter in November, neither side had hit its peak, but the fresh face of manager Andre Villas-Boas gave Spurs fans a sense of hope where the increasingly taut features of Wenger seemed to provide torment for their counterparts in N5. On both occasions Arsenal pulled off improbable 5-2 victories.
Now, once again, the great rivals meet when Wenger is embattled, recent cup defeats to Bayern Munich and second-tier Blackburn Rovers interrupting a better spell of league form, and when it is Spurs who are riding the crest of a wave. It may not seem right that such a description could or should apply to an outfit that has not long lost a cup tie of its own to lower-league opposition (Leeds United) and been held to a goalless draw by bottom-placed Queens Park Rangers, but such is the sense of momentum (some might even call it destiny) created by the performances of Gareth Bale. Spurs are winning the kind of games -- scoring the late goals -- that used to bite them on the backside.
Bale. Yes, him again. Not surprisingly, he is being billed as the key player in this match, because lately when he performs, Spurs do. He was named February's Premier League Player of the Month after a superlative run of form, Villas-Boas scooping the Manager of the Month title in recognition of the stage he has created for a number of Tottenham's players to shine.
Even as recently as that last derby, people were still wondering what kind of level Bale could reach and erring on the side of meh; he was Tottenham's best outfield player that day but could not change things singlehandedly. Now one feels he might.
Wenger insists he does not plan to target Bale specifically -- "We don't plan for anybody," he said. "There is nobody special that you least like to face." -- but with right back Bacary Sagna unavailable through injury, Arsenal can be forgiven a moment's worry. Sagna was excellent against Tottenham in November, and though he has taken some criticism from Arsenal supporters of late, Bale represents a stern test for his replacement, Carl Jenkinson.
One would expect Spurs at least to tickle the spot early on and judge the reaction. A switch of wings with Aaron Lennon is not unthinkable, either, in which case Nacho Monreal, who set up Santi Cazorla's goal against Aston Villa last weekend, may have to inhibit any attacking ambitions to ensure there is no space in behind him; when Spurs get the opportunity to counter, they quickly look to release Bale.
For Arsenal, Jack Wilshere is the equally inevitable key player pick, though that arguably does something of a disservice to the increasingly good relationship he has with Cazorla.
"His way of playing complements my own," Cazorla has said. "We play in similar positions, and that makes it easier for us to establish a greater understanding."
In Arsenal's last two league matches, both wins (albeit not entirely convincing ones), the pair have orchestrated things, each passing to the other more than to any other player.
It will be interesting to see how they (and Mikel Arteta) fare against Tottenham's central midfield pairing of Mousa Dembele and Scott Parker. At White Hart Lane last season, a derby that Tottenham won 2-1, Parker performed his snapping terrier role superbly. But during his long injury-enforced absence, Sandro formed a formidable partnership with summer signing Dembele that has not been reproduced like-for-like with the re-insertion of Parker now that Sandro is on the treatment table. One factor has been that Dembele, who is what Villas-Boas would call his more "vertical" (i.e. penetrative) central midfielder, has often been crowded out of Tottenham's attacking play by Bale drifting in to join Lewis Holtby in central areas.
Spurs will need to remedy that lack of impetus in what is likely to be another high-octane 90 minutes in north London -- who would put money on either goalkeeper having a particularly restful Sunday afternoon? In November, Emmanuel Adebayor's sending off precipitated Tottenham's capitulation, but his teammates have had to become accustomed to making do without his input even when he stays on the pitch, so there is little relief for Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
At the other end, Hugo Lloris' form is arguably as good as Bale's and certainly as important; his anticipation and movement off his line would not cut out the kind of perfectly dinked pass with which Wilshere laid on Arsenal's winning goal at Villa, but it helps to stop budding half-chances and calm the nerves that can jangle loudly in the stands at White Hart Lane.
This is being billed as the biggest north London derby in years thanks to the tightness of the three-way battle for the last two Champions League places. Lose on Sunday and Tottenham, third with 51 points, can be hauled closer by Arsenal, fifth with 47 points -- and Chelsea, currently fourth on 49 points, could end up behind both if the visit of West Brom this weekend falls victim to the turmoil of Rafa Benitez's reign. (Most likely, of course, it will be the other way around.)
Spurs have not always played their best soccer at White Hart Lane this season, and they can maintain their advantage over Arsenal with a draw. This, however, is a game that should be played to win.