Wenger may rue the one he let get away

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Envy is a common emotion among neighbours. And England's capital provides a case-in-point. Tottenham Hotspur have spent 13 years looking across North London and coveting Arsenal's lot. The Gunners live in palatial surroundings at the Emirates Stadium. Spurs are now planning to construct a sparkling new stadium of their own. Now they visit the Emirates Stadium level on points with Arsenal.

Despite regularly out-spending their rivals and with a squad that cost around twice as much as Arsenal's, Spurs have never finished above them or qualified for the Champions League since Arsene Wenger's arrival in 1996. As Tottenham insist, but for the dodgy lasagne that gave several players food poisoning in May 2006, they may have deprived their neighbours of fourth place. It is Wenger's blend of style and substance that has discomforted Tottenham. When George Graham was at Highbury, Spurs could at least content themselves with the thought they often played a superior brand of football.

Despite repeated attempts, imitation has not brought parity. From Christian Gross to Juande Ramos via Jacques Santini, Tottenham's managerial appointments have been repeated attempts to find their own Wenger. His former associates - Glenn Hoddle, who played for the Frenchman at Monaco, and former director of football Damien Comolli, a long-time Arsenal scout - appear not to have been sprinkled with stardust by their former employer.

Harry Redknapp, in contrast, is a defiantly Cockney alternative. A boyhood Arsenal fan, more renowned for entertaining one-liners than dietary advice, he can seem the antithesis of Wenger. But both share an enthusiasm for attacking football and both have revived their respective clubs. Only a surprise setback at home to Stoke last Saturday prevented them entering the derby with an advantage over Arsenal. It is an examination of Tottenham's credentials and, given their contrasting careers at White Hart Lane, two former Gunners merit particular scrutiny.

Tottenham's improvement under Redknapp can be attributed in a large part to Wilson Palacios. Few talents escape Wenger's clutches, but the rampaging Honduran midfielder may represent the one that got away for the Frenchman. Taken on trial by Arsenal, Palacios did not earn a contract but impressed Wenger sufficiently for the latter to recommend him to Steve Bruce. Signed for £14million (Dh85m) by Tottenham in January, he has brought a power to the Spurs midfield that his Arsenal counterparts, for all their technical gifts, cannot rival. Redknapp will require his forceful presence, not least because his normal providers of pace and guile are absent. Without the injured Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric on either flank, there is the prospect of a return to Arsenal for David Bentley.

Upon his emergence, it was noted he shared the same initials and some similar attributes to Dennis Bergkamp. Bentley's sole goal in the Premier League for Spurs came in Redknapp's second game at the helm, a superlative 45-yard volley in a 4-4 draw at the Emirates Stadium last season. It merited comparison with Arsenal's Dutch master; the rest of Bentley's Tottenham career has been more notable for its likeness to those of previous expensive underachievers.

Today presents an opportunity for him, but it is scarcely ideal timing for Tottenham. Jermain Defoe completes his three-match suspension for his dismissal at Portsmouth, leaving them looking less potent in the final third. It was not the best time for Robbie Keane to pick to proclaim that Spurs possess more strength in depth than the Gunners. But investment has brought them pedigree. Peter Crouch, one of the summer signings, said: "I watched the game at the Emirates last season; it was unbelievable. I'm not sure it's good for the managers or anyone else concerned when you see a 4-4 game, but we'll take any sort of a win."

Indeed, this tends to be a dramatic derby, with 38 goals in the last 10 meetings, but it has been a distinctly one-sided rivalry. Tottenham have not won any of the last 19 league meetings, dating back to November 1999. Then it was a former Arsenal manager, Graham, who oversaw their triumph. Now Redknapp, Palacios and Bentley, whose allegiances once lay with Gunners, form a disparate and unlikely trio trying to make Arsenal, for once, envious of Tottenham.

rjolly@thenational.ae Arsenal v Tottenham, KO 4.45pm, Showsports 1 & 2

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