Arsenal are just a win away from a place in North London folklore. It has to come on Thursday night. Where once Champions League qualification was begrudgingly accepted by an Emirates Stadium faithful tired of being told that fourth place was tantamount to a trophy, now it glitters tantalizingly on the horizon.
Absence has made the heart grow fonder while the burgeoning muscle of others in the Premier League may mean it is never to be taken for granted as it was under Arsene Wenger (though UEFA’s Champions League reforms may open the door to further English clubs). Perhaps it is all the more tempting because of the manner in which it can be achieved.
A first St Totteringham’s Day in six years is cause for merriment enough. Celebrating it at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in the first North London derby where this ground has hosted both sets of supporters and in so doing plunging Antonio Conte’s side into existential crisis? It could hardly be more pleasurable.
Arsenal have historical previous when it comes to travelling up the Seven Sisters’ Road and achieving lofty goals. As their fans like to chant “we’ve won the league at White Hart Lane.” Twice, to be precise. The 1971 double winners were followed by the 2004 Invincibles. Both occupy the highest echelon of the Arsenal pantheon. It might not be a trophy and it certainly would not be the same level of achievement, but beating Tottenham to qualify for the Champions League would certainly propel this squad into North London folklore.
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It is a task they are determined to relish. “It’s the opportunity to achieve something we haven’t achieved for many years,” said Mikel Arteta. “It’s the game that will decide it. Normally you don’t play games like that in the league unless you are competing for the trophy. But we know that at our level and our extent what this game can deliver to us is really important.
“The expectation is huge. This is an opportunity for one of the clubs to achieve what we are looking for. And on top of that is the emotion and the passion that the derby brings with it.
“We need to be away from that and focusing on what we have to do. To win the match [Thursday] we are going to have to be at our very best.”
As if this derby could not grow in import, it will be the first time Arsenal have played an away league game in front of fans at Tottenham’s stadium in more than five years. In April 2017, one of Spurs’ final games at White Hart Lane saw Mauricio Pochettino’s side confirm their status as the true powers of North London with a 2-0 win. Since then, a season and change spent at Wembley followed by the COVID-19 pandemic have kept these two from facing off in front of Tottenham supporters.
Home comforts tend to shine through in this match. In the top flight, Arsenal have not won away to Tottenham since 2014. Spurs are winless at the Emirates over the past 12 years. And yet the league’s youngest side, led by a manager who only turned 40 in March, have betrayed no signs of inhibition. Aaron Ramsdale’s description of the game as “good fun” offers a window into a dressing room that do not seem to fear failure in quite the same way that their supporters did.
Arsenal fans might be ready to accept a draw — which would keep them four points clear in fourth with two games to play — as surely good enough. Arteta would beg to differ.
“We always play to win and that’s the way we will prepare this game,” he said. “I’m sure they will try to do the same. That’s why hopefully it’s a really spectacular game.”
It will help his young side, who burgeoned their reputation no end earlier this season with a 3-1 derby win at home, that there are those in the wings who can attest to what success in this game means. Arteta and academy director Per Mertesacker was part of the Arsenal side looked in annual battles with Spurs for qualification, a pair of 5-2 wins over their great rivals in 2012, arguably a landmark remembered as fondly as the FA Cup wins that would follow in subsequent years for Wenger’s final squad.
Technical director Edu Gaspar, meanwhile, was on the pitch in 2004 when Arsenal moved within four games of immortality with a 2-2 draw that saw them win the title. “We have spoken, not recently but on many occasions about what they did that season,” says Arteta, “how they won it, and it’s great.
“That’s why it’s very important to have (ex players around) who have been through things that this squad have not been able to deliver yet, to share those experiences and help us.”
That word, yet, comes loaded with great expectations from Arteta. He did not take over at Arsenal just to get them back into the Champions League, he learned from five years as a player with the Gunners that a lot more is demanded of this club than just a seat at Europe’s top table. But to earn it in this fashion would surely feel like more than just Champions League qualification.