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Remembering the Greatest North London Derbies of Recent Times

With Arsenal about to meet Spurs for what promises to be one of the fiercest games of the season, we look back at their greatest clashes of recent times. Note: ‘great’ depends on perspective.

by Will Magee
Nov 4 2016, 8:46pm

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When deciding upon which North London derby is the greatest of all time, it's almost impossible to transcend one's own prejudices. Tottenham fans are highly unlikely to praise Arsenal's attacking elan from their consecutive 5-2 victories from 2012, while it would take an almost saintly sense of magnanimity for an Arsenal supporter to appreciate the greatest moment of Danny Rose's career. Considering the sense of burning resentment that accompanies the fixture, the feelings of genuine dislike it elicits, there can be few fans on either side who are able to take a step back and say: "Well, in fairness, I'm quite fond of Teddy Sheringham and Thierry Henry." Mutual appreciation isn't really a thing where the North London derby is concerned. It's more about horrible online taunts, seething silences in the workplace and the occasional low denominational coin to the forehead or eyeball. That is the formula for the typical North London derby. Wash, rinse and most certainly repeat.

That said, there have been several North London derbies down the years which, on the basis of entertainment alone, have been objectively brilliant. These are the games that produce the most visceral reactions, not only because of the way they shape the narrative of any given season, but also because of their frenetic pace and shifting fortunes; the manner in which they give one or the other set of fans hope, then tear it mercilessly and immediately away. These are the derbies that, even for fans of far-off clubs with little interest in plumbing the bottomless depths of North London's bitterness, make jaws drop and hearts flutter. These are the matches which shook the earth from Islington to Seven Sisters, and left people across the country clamouring for the start of Match of the Day.

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We begin with a quintessential fixture. It was a crisp, autumnal Saturday in November 2004, and things were just about to kick off at White Hart Lane. Arsenal had made a strong start to the season, and were second in the table going into the game. Meanwhile, Spurs had suffered a horrific month which had ended in the resignation of Jacques Santini. The forgotten man was replaced by his assistant, Martin Jol, who would go on to lead Tottenham to two seasons of not-quite Champions League qualification, scuppered only by the stubbornness of their arch-rivals and a lasagna-induced bout of digestive disarray.

It was Martin Jol's first match as manager and, in many ways, it was a microcosm of his time in charge of Tottenham. Spurs were committed, tenacious and at times genuinely impressive, and still they were outdone by their fiercest foes, with the decisive interventions coming late in the day. The home side went 1-0 up through Noureddine Naybet, the burly Moroccan centre-back who they had recently acquired from Deportivo La Coruña. The two teams then exchanged goal after goal, with the eventual decider coming from Robert Pirès in the 81st minute. It finished 5-4 to the visitors in the end, with the final whistle coming as a visible relief to Arsène Wenger. There were few who left White Hart Lane that day with their nerves intact, not least the Tottenham fans who had seen their team put four past their then-imperious nemeses, and somehow still lose the game.

If that was a match of topsy-turvy, to-and-fro brilliance, it was followed four years later by a game with only marginally less drama. In October 2008, Tottenham visited the Emirates, with the ultimate pantomime villain in their team. That man was David Bentley, an ultra-temperamental prototype version of Jack Wilshere who had come through the youth ranks at Arsenal, only to jump ship for Blackburn Rovers and then, at the start of that season, Tottenham. Bentley would go on to be an expensive flop for Spurs, but he certainly made his mark in that match, leaving fans on both sides with throats hoarse from the screams.

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Having fired Tottenham ahead with a volley from over 40 yards early on, Bentley celebrated lavishly, leaving home supporters tearing their hair out at the cruelty and unfairness of it all. That soon ceased when, not long afterwards, Arsenal found themselves 3-1 up. This was the 'banter' age of defending, and both North London clubs were horribly fallible at the back. As such, it wasn't all that surprising when the game ended up a 4-4 draw, even if the process of getting there left both sets of supporters by turns elated, heartbroken and profoundly furious, drained of energy and physically out of breath.

There are a handful of other contenders to pick from when it comes to the most entertaining North London derbies. There's a 3-3 draw towards the end of the 2010/11 season which springs to mind, not least for an absolute screamer from the now much-reviled Samir Nasri, with an even better goal from Tom Huddlestone in reply. Going back further, there was the 2-2 draw that saw the 'Invincibles' secure their league title, and celebrate the win on the turf of White Hart Lane. While Tottenham fans might remember that day with a mixture of rage and revulsion, the game itself was a legitimate cracker. Arsenal should really have won it after goals from Patrick Vieira and Pirès, but a long-range howitzer from Jamie Redknapp gave the home side hope before Robbie Keane put a last-minute penalty away.

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While that penalty was entirely avoidable, and caused by a moment of near self-parody from Jens Lehmann, it saved Spurs from further embarrassment on what was still a painful and humiliating day. Even now, images of Henry and co. celebrating in front of the away end are broadcast on Sky Sports ahead of clashes at White Hart Lane. The North London derby has never seen a more significant draw, nor one which tapped into the emotional weight of the rivalry in quite the same way.

Going back to famous triumphs, however, one of the most captivating wins by either side came at the Emirates in November 2010. It was another chaotic, pulsating clash, and Tottenham emerged victorious against the odds. Having gone 2-0 up through Samir Nasri and goalscoring antihero Marouane Chamakh, Arsenal seemed destined to take all three points and clamber up to the top of the league. Instead, they were pegged back by Gareth Bale and a man who was, in the most heartfelt fashion, despised amongst Arsenal fans – the rotund and occasionally lethal Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart.

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What happened next will live long in the memory for Spurs fans, and perhaps even longer for their North London rivals. The winning goal came from an unlikely source, and a prosaic matchday hero was born. In the 86th minute, a free kick was pumped into the box, and Younès Kaboul glanced a header past the hapless Łukasz Fabiański. The collective groan let out at the Emirates could have cleaved the skies, not that it would have made a difference as far as the result was concerned.

With the next North London derby imminent, these games serve as the benchmark against which it will be judged. For neutrals and impartial observers, the idea of a repeat of any one of these fixtures must be mouthwatering. For fans on either side of the North London divide, however, it's hard to know whether to hope for a classic. On the one hand, it can end in euphoria and elation, and on the other, it can end in utter despair. Either way, it takes a serious toll on the health. There's nothing wrong with a goalless draw, now and then.