Robin van Persie, Arsenal's most potent attacker, will make his long-awaited return from injury tonight. And Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, made it clear yesterday that he expects the Dutchman to play a significant role against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Van Persie has been out of action since November, when a challenge by Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini during Holland's goalles draw with Italy left him with damaged ankle ligaments.
"He will feature," Wenger told the Press Association yesterday. "He lacks a bit of match practice but when I pick a player it means he's fit and sharp. "There's always a gamble in such decisions but we have been a bit cautious in his case. But Van Persie is a very important player at this club. He is important for the confidence." A North London derby tends to have plotlines aplenty, but this has more than usual: to improve their own chances of playing Champions League football, Tottenham must derail Arsenal's title challenge and, in the process, aid Chelsea's. And Wenger, whose resources have been stretched and whose medical staff have become overworked by a flurry of injuries, will be delighted to have his finest centre forward available again.
"The best passer in the league and the best goalscorer in the league," said the Frenchman, shortly before the Dutchman was injured, as he declared Van Persie shared some of the attributes of his distinguished predecessors in the Arsenal attack, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. It was heady praise, but justified by his early season impact: while Van Persie struck seven times, Arsenal mustered an improbable 36 goals in the 11 league games he played.
Since then, Eduardo, Nicklas Bendtner and an out-of-position Andrey Arshavin have deputised as the focal point of the forward line, increasingly manfully in the case of the Dane, who has eight goals in 10 games. But it is tempting to wonder if Manchester United or Chelsea would be in contention after five months without Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba. Arsenal, still without Arshavin, Cesc Fabregas and William Gallas, need every world-class player at their disposal.
Bendtner said: "It will be great to have him back. He had a nasty injury and he has been working hard in training to get back." A return of another kind is on the agenda tonight when Sol Campbell, who crossed North London to join Arsenal in 2001, goes back to White Hart Lane for the first time in almost five years. Time has healed few wounds between the defender and Tottenham. Last year, two Spurs fans were found guilty in a criminal court of the charge of indecent chanting for directing homophobic abuse at Campbell, then a Portsmouth player.
"He can cope with it," insisted Gael Clichy, the left-back. "Since he has come back, he has shown he is still [at the top level]. When he has been asked to play he has done his job and the fact he is going back to White Hart Lane won't give him any trouble." Continuity would be appreciated by Arsenal. They are unbeaten in 20 Premier League derbies against Tottenham (indeed a former Gunner, George Graham, was the last Spurs manager to defeat them).
Spurs, meanwhile, need a change in their fortunes, both against their North London neighbours and, over the last 10 days, against anyone. Back-to-back defeats to Sunderland and Portsmouth have cost them fourth position and a place in the FA Cup final. Wilson Palacios, their most combative midfielder, begins a two-match ban for collecting his 10th booking of the campaign at Wembley on Sunday. Given Arsenal's usual domination of possession, it could prove a costly caution. The injured Niko Kranjcar is also absent, while Aaron Lennon is not yet fit to return.
But Spurs expect to have club captain Ledley King back for the first time in two months. King versus Van Persie may be a meeting of the injury-prone. It could also play a large part in determining who finishes first and fourth. @Email:email@example.com Showsports 1&2, KO 11pm