LONDON (Reuters) - If Sunday’s clash does indeed turn out to be the last north London derby at Tottenham Hotspur’s historic White Hart Lane stadium, the stakes could hardly be higher for the protagonists.
Tottenham, who are expected to announce this week that they will definitely move to Wembley next season while their new stadium is completed, will finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years with victory over Arsene Wenger’s Gunners.
Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant young side have grander ambitions though, and first and foremost in their minds will be keeping alive their hopes of a first English league title since the club’s glory days in 1961.
Should Chelsea fail to win at Everton in Sunday’s earlier match, Tottenham could conceivably be top of the table before Chelsea play again if they beat Arsenal and follow that with victory at West Ham United next Friday.
“The possibility of finishing above Arsenal is not a motivation or a distraction,” Pochettino said after his side beat in-form Crystal Palace to narrow the gap on Chelsea to four points on Wednesday.
“We are just focusing on trying to beat Arsenal. What happens at the end of the season. We have five games ahead, a very exciting period, and an exciting weekend ahead.”
While Arsenal would dearly love to scupper Tottenham’s title bid, they too have more pressing concerns, namely trying to qualify for a 20th consecutive Champions League campaign.
Wenger’s sixth-placed side secured a late 1-0 win over Leicester City on Wednesday to move four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City and three behind Manchester United before Thursday’s Manchester derby.
Like Pochettino, Wenger said bragging rights were secondary.
“We play for us. In life you work for your own achievements, not for others,” Wenger said. “What is most important is that we go there, try to win the game and focus on our performance.”
Recent history suggests both sides might fall short of their ambitions on Sunday.
The last three north London derbies have ended in draws, including last season’s clash at the Lane in March, when a late Alexis Sanchez equaliser earned 10-man Arsenal a 2-2 draw which prevented Tottenham going top of the table.
Tottenham have won their last eight league matches though -- a club record in the Premier League and their best sequence since 1960 -- and have been unstoppable at the ground that will soon be bulldozed to make way for the 61,000-seater arena sprouting up around it.
They have also scored in their last 17 home league matches so Arsenal’s task is a formidable one, especially with central defender Laurent Koscielny doubtful after suffering a knee injury late on against Leicester.
Tottenham will also monitor the fitness of Mousa Dembele, who was substituted at halftime at Palace with a sprained ankle.
Before Tottenham and Arsenal kick off, Chelsea face the toughest of their final five fixtures against an Everton side who have won their last eight home matches.
Everton beat Chelsea twice at Goodison last season in the Premier League and FA Cup quarter-final, but were thumped 5-0 at Stamford Bridge when the teams met in November.
“Chelsea are a difficult team to beat but we are a match to anyone at home,” Everton midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, who played under Pochettino at Southampton, said.
“It will be hard for them on Sunday and we won’t let them breathe, or have any space on the pitch.”
At the bottom of the table, Sunderland will go down if they lose to Bournemouth and Hull City avoid defeat at Southampton.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Catherine Evans