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By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Unbeaten in 11 Premier League matches and with man-of-the-moment Gareth Bale scoring at will, Tottenham Hotspur start as favourites against Arsenal on Sunday in a north London derby crucial to both sides' hopes of Champions League qualification.
Victory for third-placed Tottenham would send them seven points clear of the fifth-placed Gunners and keep them above Chelsea in what is becoming a London-based tussle for third and fourth spots behind the Manchester clubs.
Bale has scored eight goals in his last six matches for Tottenham after manager Andre Villas-Boas gave the Welsh winger freedom to roam inside, his latest stunner coming to earn his side a 3-2 victory at West Ham United on Monday.
Arsenal, who last claimed three points at Spurs in 2007, have also been consistent in the league despite cup exits at the hands of fourth tier Bradford City and Championship side Blackburn Rovers and a Champions League mauling by Bayern Munich.
While Villas-Boas has won over the sceptics among Tottenham's fans after a tricky start at White Hart Lane, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has come in for unprecedented criticism as an eighth successive trophyless campaign looms.
Wenger, however, has lost only five times in 39 north London derbies, even if the gap between the clubs has closed.
It was about this time last season that his side met Tottenham at the Emirates with the visitors in an even stronger position, seeking a victory that would have opened up a 13-point gap between themselves and their bitter rivals.
Tottenham led 2-0 but collapsed to a 5-2 defeat, Arsenal eventually finished third and although Tottenham ended fourth they were denied a Champions League spot because Chelsea, who came sixth, ended up as European champions.
Tottenham also led at the Emirates this season before Emmanuel Adebayor was sent off and Arsenal again roared back to claim another 5-2 victory.
Those defeats serve as stark warnings to Spurs of the threat posed by an Arsenal who with the likes of Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott possess the firepower that promises to make the 152nd league meeting between the old rivals a cracking game.
There have been 39 goals in the last eight meetings between the clubs in all competitions, including a 2-1 victory for Tottenham in April 2010 that propelled Tottenham towards their first Champions League adventure.
Bale scored in that encounter and much of Wenger's pre-match preparation this week will be devoted to becalming a man already being tipped to win the Player of the Year award.
"Words can't descibe how well he is playing at the moment," Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker, sent off in the defeat at the Emirates last season, said of Bale.
"We have players in our squad that Arsenal would want any day of the week. It's a big game for us and we can push away a little bit."
Fourth-placed Chelsea, who set up an FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United by beating Middlesbrough on Wednesday, can ramp up the pressure on Sunday's protagonists when they host West Bromwich Albion 24 hours earlier - a fixture that has not been kind on recent managers.
Villas-Boas was sacked after a defeat by West Brom last season and his successor Roberto Di Matteo's last league game in charge was also a defeat by the Midlands side in November.
Interim manager Rafa Benitez has struggled to win over the Chelsea fans although he insists the players are on board despite dropping 13 points from 24 since the turn of the year.
"I guarantee the players believe in what we're trying to do, 100 percent," Benitez said this week.
Leaders Manchester United can re-open a 15-point lead over champions Manchester City when they host Norwich City on Saturday, although manager Alex Ferguson's team selection will be heavily influenced by the Champions League last-16 second-leg match against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
"We have a job to do and the manager has said we need to think game to game and just win the next match, what's in front of us," midfielder Michael Carrick told United's website.
"You can't look too far ahead because it can come back and bite you."
City will hope United do take their eye off the ball as they prepare for Monday's trip to Aston Villa who dropped back into the bottom three with a 2-1 defeat at Arsenal last week.
Twelve months ago Harry Redknapp was battling for a top-four finish with Tottenham and was still in the frame for the England job but this time he finds himself in an increasingly desperate relegation fight with Queens Park Rangers.
Defeat at Southampton on Saturday would leave bottom club QPR's survival chances looking forlorn.
Second-from-bottom Reading are only a point adrift of safety ahead of Saturday's trip to Everton whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League are receding fast. (Editing by Ed Osmond)