Now or never for 'little brother' Spurs
A defeat for Arsenal will sound the death knell for Gunners' title bid and Wenger's career
TOTTENHAM v ARSENAL
(Tonight, 8.45pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
For 7,599 days, Arsenal had a "little brother" called Tottenham.
His only purpose was comic relief.
He was brought out in front of the neighbours to be mocked and bullied. His small stature made him the subject of countless jokes. He was looked down upon, both literally and metaphorically.
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the "little brother" hit puberty. He went through a growth spurt so quick and so startling that "big brother" was left as shocked as he was embarrassed.
Now, "little brother" looks down on "big brother".
After a lifetime of abuse, he stands poised at White Hart Lane, fists clenched, ready for revenge. If he takes it tonight, "big brother" will not recover from the public humiliation.
The psychological burden will be too much to bear.
The North London Derby goes beyond mere sibling rivalry - this is boiling, foaming, pus-filled hatred, 7,599 days in the making.
That was the last time Tottenham finished above Arsenal in the English Premier League and, even then, 1995 proved to be an anomaly.
For 21 years, Spurs sulked in the shadow of bigger, brutish bullies.
But tonight's derby will resemble the final days of Basic Military Training, with wiser, muscular and hairier men ready to face their former tormentors.
On this gloriously unique occasion, do believe the hype. White Hart Lane is about to host the most significant North London Derby in living memory.
The overlapping plot-lines are lifted from the big book of Hollywood sports epic cliches.
Tottenham haven't challenged for the title since their Double in 1961.
Arsenal's creaking, wheezing cluster of Humpty Dumptys know that this season represents their greatest opportunity since 2004.
Most intriguingly of all, the old enemies are both in contention for the championship at the same time, for the first time. Ever.
And these guys truly despise each other. From father to son, mother to daughter, across generations, the mutual loathing defines their devotion to their respective clubs.
The more they love one side, the more they hate the other. It's a Greek tragedy masquerading as a football match.
To get within touching distance of the elusive trophy only to have it snatched away will be heart-wrenching enough.
But the thought of the thief being the next-door neighbour turns the stomach. It's just unpalatable, unthinkable.
For the victors, this game will one day be shared with wide-eyed grandchildren. For the losers, it will be the game that cannot be named, the day the dream died. Whatever the outcome, pain beckons.
Tottenham felt it in midweek, conceding a soft goal and losing at West Ham. The pressure distracted young minds. The fear of failure didn't defeat Spurs. It was the terrifying promise of success.
The Gunners know the feeling.
They've turned psychological collapses into an art form. Last year, it was August. Sometimes, it's March, April and even May. Arsenal and title implosions go together like Olivier Giroud and missed sitters.
But this promises to be the worst of all.
Mauricio Pochettino knows he could recover from both derby defeat and a failed title bid, but Arsene Wenger can't. The Gunners faithful are out of patience.
A defeat at White Hart Lane will probably end the silverware chase and begin the mutiny.
In such nerve-shredding circumstances, only those carved in granite would cope, but the Gunners are cursed with the mental stability of a strawberry trifle.
In recent seasons, Wenger has moved away from signing athletic, indomitable shouters and screamers in favour of smaller, quieter painters and decorators. In essence, he went from the sinewy gazelles of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit to flaky, mercurial artists.
The tactical shift has made Arsenal more flexible. Unfortunately, it hasn't made them any better.
Despite those rare occasions when Mesut Oezil, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez gelled, the weak spine remained, thanks to the manager.
Wenger refused to sign a decent centre back, defensive midfielder and striker for games that really mattered, games like this one.
Tottenham have key men in all three positions.
And they also have a reliable goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, but Petr Cech is out for Arsenal. His replacement, David Ospina, neatly represents his team.
The goalkeeper can be flamboyant, sometimes magnificent, but infuriatingly inconsistent. That's Ospina. That's Arsenal.
And if they lose tonight, that will just about be the end of Wenger's Arsenal career.
For the most part, Arsenal supporters have been loyal to the Frenchman, always mindful of his early achievements.
But a cruel loss in a North London Derby of this magnitude will never be forgotten, or forgiven.
'Experience doesn't give gunners the edge'
Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino does not believe Arsenal's experience of challenging for the title gives the Gunners an edge in the race at the top.
Spurs take on their fiercest rivals tonight, knowing a win at White Hart Lane would open up a six-point gap over Arsene Wenger's men with only nine Premier League games left to play.
It could also reduce the lead of Leicester, who are currently three points clear at the summit, as Tottenham look to bounce back from Wednesday's 1-0 defeat by West Ham.
IN THE FRAY
Arsenal are the only side in the top three to have gone through the highs and lows of a title race in recent seasons, but Pochettino dismissed the theory that experience could be decisive.
"It's difficult to know," the Argentinian said. "If they have players who have the advantage to win the title, what happened against Manchester United or Swansea?
"We are capable of beating Manchester City away. (On Wednesday night) against West Ham was difficult, but sometimes we use a lot of topics in football. Football is simple, not too complicated.
"Different clubs sometimes sign a player or a manager with a big background or big trophies behind them. Sometimes they have success and sometimes not.
"You never know. Football is not an ordinary business. Anything can happen."
Having said that, Pochettino believes Arsene Wenger is a "special" manager to have lasted so many years at Arsenal.
Wenger has come under fresh scrutiny this week after consecutive defeats by Manchester United and Swansea left the Gunners six points adrift in the title race.
The meeting will be the Wenger's 48th North London Derby in his 20th season at Arsenal and Pochettino believes the Frenchman has earned his longevity.
"It is about the special capacity that Sir Alex Ferguson had and now Arsene Wenger," Pochettino said.
"I don't know if the capacities of the managers (have changed) or because football has changed, it's difficult to say.
"Maybe they are special people. Maybe Ferguson and Wenger are special people who are capable of keeping their jobs for so long. Maybe we aren't too special.
"It's like Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi. It's difficult for some players to appear every season like them, no?
"Maybe when we think of special people like Ferguson or Wenger, maybe it's not the clubs who are special, maybe the managers are special to keep their jobs."
Mousa Dembele has an outside chance of a return against the Gunners as he nears recovery from a groin strain and Dele Alli is expected to shake off an ankle problem. Clinton Njie and Jan Vertonghen are both out with knee injuries.
- PA Sport.
Maybe Ferguson and Wenger are special people who are capable of keeping their jobs for so long. Maybe we aren’t too special.
— Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino on the career longevity of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger