October 17, 2022

AAntonio Conte remembers the last North London derby and he wasn’t even Tottenham’s manager at the time. “It was a difficult period for my team,” says Conte, and there is no doubt that the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal at the end of September was the worst. “Of course, at that time, confidence was down.”

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg shivers at the memory. It wasn’t just the defeat but the way to it. At times, during a nightmarish first half, it looked like he was in charge of the Spurs midfield alone. Arsenal ripped, scoring three goals in 34 minutes. Their domination was total; unassailable lead.

“It was not good and it hurt a lot,” says Højbjerg. “It’s something that as a player you can’t accept. What happened last time at the Emirates is absolutely forbidden, absolutely something that’s not worth it [of us].”

For Spurs, the derby is always the game of the season, a point of reference, and it is often tempting to chart their progress from one to the next. In September, Spurs had just six matches left in the Premier League season and Nuno Espírito Santo’s managerial tenure. But everyone knew. It was over for him.

Nuno was limping, but not for long, being sacked at the end of October after the 3-0 home loss to Manchester United. At that point, enter Conte with a brief – in his words – “to try to improve the situation… the club didn’t ask me to go and get a place in the Champions League or the Europa League”.

Spurs were eighth after losing five of their previous seven matches. Not good, as Conte puts it, and “only a madman could imagine that with three games to go we would be in the running for a Champions League place”.

But as Spurs prepare, belatedly, to welcome Arsenal to their stadium on Thursday night, that is precisely where they are. Conte’s league record reads: W14 D5 L6 Pts 47 and when transposed over 38 games he has a season total of 71.4 points. He galvanized the group. And now comes the settling of scores in a confrontation fraught with juicy intrigue: revenge (as above), enormous significance for the future direction of both clubs and, frankly, liters of bad blood.

When Spurs last hosted this game it was in December 2020, Jose Mourinho was their manager and a 2-0 win had them top of the table. It’s like an eternity ago. There were no fans in attendance due to the pandemic and neither were there for the stadium’s first derby in July 2020, which Spurs won 2-1.

A dejected Nuno Espírito Santo attends Spurs' defeat at the Emirates in September.
A dejected Nuno Espírito Santo attends Spurs’ defeat at the Emirates in September. Photography: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

It will be the first on the spot in front of a crowd and, while the atmosphere promises to be electric, there is also the possibility that it will fall horribly flat for Spurs, further adding to the tension.

Conte’s side know that in all likelihood they must win if they are to challenge for a top four spot in the penultimate or final round of matches and even then they would be counting on a favor Besides. But if Arsenal were to win, they would get a Champions League final at the expense of their neighbours. This is not what the Tottenham Hotspur stadium was built for.

The match was originally scheduled for January 16, but Arsenal successfully requested a postponement as they faced a selection crisis, but not linked to positive Covid cases. Spurs were furious and released a pointed statement which got their feelings across with absolute clarity. When Conte reflects on the episode, he keeps using words like “strange” and “unfair”.

Conte admits that “it’s fair to play this type of game with all the players available” and says what matters to him are the improvements his people have made since then, tactically and physically. And the overview too. Winning a derby should be a means to a big goal, not an end in itself.

“There is a great rivalry [between Spurs and Arsenal], we know it very well, the players know it very well and we want to give satisfaction to our fans,” said Conte. “But when I played other derbies, with Inter or Juventus, I always said that a derby is one game, or two games, in a season and that a great team must win the derby, not because it’s your rival but because you get three points and they bring you closer to winning something important Our mind must be open for an important goal, for winning a derby is a way to achieve this goal.

The Fiver: Sign up and receive our daily football email.

Conte can be proud of having led his team from a low starting point to a fight for a top-four finish, a prize he describes as “like winning a title in another country”.

It has come to hinge on a derby like few others and, hopes Conte, nothing like the latter. “I think and hope to see a different type of game because many situations have changed,” Conte said. “We want to show that we are a good team and that we can fight for the Champions League.”

Source link