LONDON, England, March 2 – Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has warned Arsenal that Gareth Bale will use Sunday’s crucial north London derby to prove he deserves to be ranked as one of the world’s top three players.
Bale will be firmly in the spotlight when Arsenal arrive at White Hart Lane for a potentially decisive moment in the battle to qualify for the Champions League.
Villas-Boas’s third placed team are already four points clear of Arsenal, who lie fifth, and a victory over their bitter rivals would be a major blow to the Gunners’ hopes of finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
If Tottenham are to add to spluttering Arsenal’s woes, they will need another dominant display from Bale, who underlined his remarkable talent by inspiring Spurs to a 3-2 win at West Ham on Monday.
Bale scored twice at Upton Park, including a sublime last-minute winner, to take his goal tally to 23 for club and country this season.
The 23-year-old’s superb form in recent months has led to claims that the Wales winger is now as influential as Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona playmaker Lionel Messi.
Villas-Boas has no doubts about Bale’s brilliance and he believes this weekend’s marquee match-up is the perfect stage for the winger to showcase the electric pace and lethal finishing that has the likes of Real and Barcelona contemplating blockbuster bids in the close-season.
“He is world class and those two players (Messi and Ronaldo) are,” Villas-Boas said.
“Gareth at the moment is showing the form to be at the level of those two players, who have won so much throughout their careers, including European trophies.
“He still has to achieve that and we hope he can achieve it with us. I think he is very down to earth.”
Although victory for Villas-Boas’s side will move them seven points ahead of Arsenal with 10 games to go, the Portuguese coach believes that will still not guarantee Champions League qualification.
“We are on a good run of form and extremely confident, but I don’t think (Champions League qualification) is going to be on whatever result happens this weekend,” said Villas-Boas, whose side are unbeaten in the league since December 9.
“Seven points is still recoverable for a team like Arsenal. It’s all very tight still, but obviously we know the importance of the fixture and the way it can impact on both clubs moving forward.”
While Bale clearly poses the greatest threat to Arsenal’s bid to win at White Hart Lane for the first time since September 2007, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger is adamant his side won’t just focus on stopping the Welshman.
Wenger, who considering buying Bale from Southampton before his eventual move to Spurs, said: “We don’t plan for anybody. It is always the same, focus on our strengths and forget about your opponent.
“There is nobody special that you least like to face. All players have different qualities.”
Wenger, whose club have gone eight years without a trophy, can ill-afford another chastening defeat on Sunday as he looks to rescue a traumatic campaign that has seen subjected to more criticism than ever before.
After crashing out of both domestic cup competitions against Bradford and Blackburn, and with their Champions League campaign all but over after a 3-1 last 16 first leg defeat against Bayern Munich, Arsenal’s only remaining goal is to finish in the top four.
In the circumstances, Wenger concedes a defeat would be a significant setback given his team’s fragile morale.
“There are still 10 games to go after Tottenham and a lot can happen,” said Wenger, whose side won 5-2 in the last north London derby in November.
“Let’s not forget Chelsea are involved as well. However, the game on Sunday will have a psychological importance for the rest of the season.”