In 2013, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are heading into a straight-up battle for fourth place in the English Premier League. Unless either club starts throwing around massive amounts of money, that could be the rivalry's identity for the foreseeable future.
Halfway through the 2012-13 Premier League season, Tottenham sit fourth with 33 points. Through 19 league matches, first-year manager Andre Villas-Boas had led Spurs to 10 wins, three draws and six defeats. Tottenham have collected 18 points at home and 15 on their travels and currently have a goal-differential of plus-nine.
They are, in other words, a good team—though not a great one.
Arsenal's record looks remarkably similar. Having played one fewer match, the Gunners are seventh, three points behind Spurs, Everton and West Brom. Arsene Wenger's men have recovered from a poor start and have now won eight matches, drawn six and lost four. If they win their match in hand, they would vault into third place on goal differential.
Everton and West Brom could remain in the race for fourth place for most of the season's run-in, but Tottenham and Arsenal should be considered the favorites for the Premier League's final Champions League spot. Here's why.
Compared to Everton and West Brom, Spurs and Arsenal have superior squads. In Gareth Bale, Villas-Boas believes he has a top-class player (via BBC Sport). Based on Bale's hat-trick performance against Aston Villa, it's hard to disagree.
Bale isn't Spurs' only asset. Midfielder Scott Parker will keep wielding his influence as he continues his recovery from injury. Further midfield options abound in skilled performers like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey, Moussa Dembele and Sandro.
Striker Jermain Defoe ranks among the league leaders with 10 goals. Jan Vertonghen is proving himself a valuable addition to the defense. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is a top-class talent who should be an excellent long-term replacement for Brad Friedel.
Arsenal have plenty of talent as well. The problem for the Gunners has been using it consistently.
Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is a good bet for the future, while young full-backs Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson also look promising. Central defenders Thomas Vermaelen (the team captain), Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have produced maddening moments at times, but they've also performed well at others.
The midfield contains a potentially strong English core in youngsters Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If Theo Walcott sticks around, he'll help stabilize an attack group that has been wildly inconsistent all season.
All that to say this: Both Tottenham and Arsenal possess loads of raw talent. On paper, both are better than West Brom and Everton—and thus the race for fourth place should be theirs to contest.
Which team will finish higher in the league this season?
That won't be enough for either set of fans, though. All fans desire and expect titles. And though Arsenal and Tottenham have talented squads, they cannot keep up with Manchester United, Manchester City or even Chelsea as currently constructed.
City bought a place at English football's elite table through heavy investment. United have remained there for years, and based on what they're reportedly paying Robin van Persie, it's no surprise he jumped ship from Arsenal over the summer. Chelsea, too, have spent a great deal of money, and their bursting squad reflects that.
Arsenal and Tottenham have not matched suit. For that reason (among others) the north London rivalry is currently a race for fourth place. Until one or both invest heavily—or until some young talents mature—little more will be at stake in one of Europe's fiercest feuds.