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Friday, November 16, 2012
Wenger: Derbies vital for top-four hopes

Kevin Palmer

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes the results of this season's North London derbies against Tottenham will be crucial in the race to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League.

• Preview: A derby of high stakes
• Blog: Concentration, not formation
• Blog: Line-up to beat Arsenal

Andre Villas-Boas' Spurs head to Emirates Stadium on Saturday lunchtime with their sights set on a victory that would hand them a huge psychological blow in their bid to finish above their local rivals, with Wenger fully aware of the significance of the fixture.

Arsenal's 5-2 comeback win against Tottenham in this fixture last February proved crucial in their successful charge to secure third spot in the final Premier League standings last May and Wenger suggests it could be equally significant this season.

"The results of the two North London derbies could have a big influence on the qualifying spots for the Champions League," he said. "These games are usually played at a frantic pace and I expect this will be no different.

"I get a question every year if Tottenham are getting closer to us. For a long time we were winning championships and they were not even finishing in the top four, so clearly they have got closer. They are always fighting every year and have shown more consistency."

Wenger has suggested the departure of star names, rather than the arrival of a new manager, has been the most significant factor in Tottenham's transformation this season, but he still sees them as candidates in the race for a top-four finish.

"I don't think the change of manager has changed their style, it is a change of players as well," Wenger said. "They lost two creative players in Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric and now [they are] strong in midfield and dangerous on the counter-attack, with [Gareth] Bale, [Aaron] Lennon, [Emmanuel] Adebayor and [Jermain] Defoe if he plays.

"This North London derby is important because we have dropped points recently and want to get back to some consistency. We play at the Emirates and it is important that we are strong at home."

Meanwhile, Wenger has hit back at suggestions that this season's Premier League title race is a three-horse race, as he insists his faltering Arsenal side can ruffle the feathers of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea.

Wenger's side were dismissed as title no-hopers by Chelsea keeper Petr Cech and Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in recent days, but Wenger is retaining his optimism despite a run of disappointing results.

"I don't agree that there are only three teams in the title race," he said. "We are a long way off the leaders, and we want to get that back. We have done it before and we want to do it as quickly as possible."

Wenger said he "will need plenty of doctors" on hand in the morning as keeper Wojciech Szczesny, Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud and Bacary Sagna all face fitness tests ahead of the 12.45pm GMT kick-off at the Emirates on Saturday.

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