Tottenham v Arsenal: North London derby could define in each club's top four ambitions
If the demolition derby is a staple of American culture, the elimination derby may become a feature of meetings between the duelling halves of north London.
Last April, Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-0 win at White Hart Lane ensured they would finish ahead of Arsenal for the first time since 1995. It all but ended Arsenal’s hopes of a top-four finish.
Fast forward 10 months and the consequences are again considerable. The scenario for Spurs is that defeat would undo their fine work in closing in on Chelsea and coming back twice against Liverpool.
But a win would take Spurs into the top four, if only for 55 hours. It would put them seven points ahead of Arsenal and, if not eliminate their rivals from the squabble for the three places behind Manchester City, render them rank outsiders. “If you look at the table, for us it’s a very important game,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
If Arsenal enter it buoyed, it is due to two factors: the rejuvenating power of signings who made an immediate impact in last week’s 5-1 win over Everton and a change of venue.
Wenger won a Premier League title at White Hart Lane, but may not mourn its demise. Wembley has come to be home from home for Arsenal, who have tasted victory on their last nine visits.
Considering an away record that only shows three triumphs in 13 Premier League games, that may be just as well. It is little wonder Wenger said he would prefer to play at the national stadium. “We have a good level of performance there,” the Frenchman said.
Arsenal performed superbly on Saturday. They surged into a four-goal lead in 37 minutes against Everton. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ended his debut with a goal, albeit an offside one, as a reward for eviscerating speed. Henrikh Mkhitaryan finished his first start with the first hat-trick of assists recorded by an Arsenal player since Santi Cazorla in 2013. Aaron Ramsey recorded the only hat-trick of his 10-year Arsenal career.
“It gives a new hope when fresh players come in,” Wenger said. That they are players of the calibre of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang has fostered optimism at a club where pessimism became ingrained, at least among the support.
Yet if Arsenal long had continuity, now Tottenham do. The clash of the strikers pits Aubameyang, scorer of one goal for his new club, against Harry Kane, who brought up a Premier League century last week.
“Our strikers are top class as well,” said Wenger, who will presumably again bench the £53 million (Dh270.4m) signing Alexandre Lacazette. But, when asked if there is a better striker in Europe than Kane, he replied: “If you look at the numbers, no.”
Tottenham’s top scorer has six goals in his last six league games against Arsenal. Wenger, whose side’s defensive frailties have been apparent on their travels, argued that attack is the key to halting him. “The best way to defend is to have the numbers and take the game to them,” he said. It was a method that worked in November when Arsenal won 2-0, inspired by Alexis Sanchez.
Much has changed at the Emirates Stadium since then. Another constant could be removed from the team as Petr Cech needs a late fitness test, though there is a case that his understudy David Ospina is the superior goalkeeper anyway.
It would be no surprise if Pochettino sends out the side that beat Manchester United and held Liverpool. Tottenham have the momentum. After finishing behind Arsenal for 22 consecutive seasons until last year, the balance of power in north London is weighted their way now. And not merely because they have home advantage on Saturday.