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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Arsenal v Tottenham: Plenty at stake when Unai Emery presides over first North London derby

Key Premier League points, a chance to boost his reputation with the fans, and local bragging rights all up for grabs at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday

Unai Emery has led Arsenal on an 18-match unbeaten run but face their toughest opponents in recent weeks on Sunday. Reuters
Unai Emery has led Arsenal on an 18-match unbeaten run but face their toughest opponents in recent weeks on Sunday. Reuters

It would be short-sighted to suggest Unai Emery, a veteran of nine Sevilla-v-Real Betis collisions, an ex-Valencia manager who has felt the heat of local skirmishes that stretch of the Mediterranean, that the atmosphere he will experience on Sunday will be like none he has ever known before in a derby.

But Emery will certainly sense an intensity he has yet to hear and see as an Arsenal manager at his new home ground.

The season-ticket holders at Emirates Stadium have come to appreciate Emery and he will be aware of that, in amplified applause, before the kick-off of Sunday’s confrontation with Tottenham Hotspur.

Arsenal are a point shy of the top four in the Premier League - a place better than they finished last season in - and undefeated since the middle of August across competitions.

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Read more:

Merseyside derby preview: Liverpool have gone from cavalier to cautious

Premier League predictions: Tottenham end Arsenal's unbeaten run

Mauricio Pochettino has faith Tottenham can win in Barcelona

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Stability in the age of Emery so far started with a hard-earned win in an all-London contest, at home to West Ham United, and probably reached its most glorious blossom on the other side of the capital, during the second half of the 5-1 demolition of Fulham. So, they have seen off London’s middleweights; they have yet to take points from the city’s stronger clubs.

And this is the derby that really counts, the fixture that will endorse or diminish supporters’ affections for Emery the canny strategist and the apparently capable motivator. Arsenal versus Tottenham is the rivalry that, whatever the location, whatever their proximity in the table, evokes as fierce an enmity as any Premier League fixture.

In some respects, this one looks typical of recent seasons. The clubs are in a jostle for what is shaping up as one available spot in the end-of-season top four, with Manchester City and Liverpool best placed to secure two of them and Chelsea in a three-into-two bottleneck of the leading London clubs.

That is a familiar pattern. Four times in the last nine years Arsenal have nudged Spurs out of the top four, effectively taking a Uefa Champions League berth at their neighbours’ expense. In the last two years, Tottenham got their own back, elbowing Arsenal aside.

Emery has had the so-called ‘St Totteringham’s Day’ joke explained to him, the Arsenal supporters’ invention and celebration of the date in the calendar at which their club reach the number of points that guarantees their finishing higher than Spurs in the final table. It has been a long wait: the last one of those was in 2016.

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Graham Caygill's Premier League predictions:

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By Sunday evening, Arsenal, fifth, could have caught up on Spurs, third, with a win. That would be a feather in Emery’s cap, but smooth though his integration has been so far, there will be an eerie feel at the Emirates.

Emery will be patrolling the technical area that Spurs supporters, coming to the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s home since 2006, have only ever seen designated to Arsene Wenger. There will be thousands of Spurs and Arsenal fans who have never known a manager other than Wenger presiding over this contest. You have to go back to April 1996, when Bruce Rioch took charge against Spurs at Highbury for the last time Wenger was not in charge.

The Frenchman only lost nine of his 52 North London duels, which leaves quite a standard for Emery to match. He will set about purposefully. He has been bold in his decisions so far, dropping Mesut Ozil last weekend, undistracted by Aaron Ramsey’s contract issues, and Emery has been proactive in much of his tactical thinking.

What intrigues on Sunday is how far he dares take the battle to a Spurs who have had a good eight days, beating Chelsea at Wembley, and winning against Inter Milan to keep themselves in contention for the knockout stage of the Champions League.

Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager whose warm personal relationship with Emery goes back to their time as managers in Spain, hints at feeling a corner has been turned.

“We have shown we can be competitive at this level,” he said after the resonant 3-1 win over Chelsea. His front-line attacking players have all hit form, with goals for Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in the last week.

Spurs have won their past six games. Three of those were all-capital affairs. They are entitled to call themselves the lords of London right now.