Sunday’s north London derby at the Emirates features two in-form sides of varying degrees in hosts Arsenal and guests Tottenham Hotspur. But the first north London derby without Arsene Wenger since 1996 is expected to offer another clue for just how far the Gunners have come under first-year manager Unai Emery.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Arsenal (8-3-2) are unbeaten in their last 18 matches (14-4-0) across all competitions since Emery’s tenure began with losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. Faced with a logistical nightmare for Thursday’s Europa League tie at Vorskla Poltava in which the match was moved for Vorskala to Kiev 48 hours before kickoff coupled with a crunch derby match on a short turnaround, Emery opted for a younger squad with fringe players while leaving his regulars behind.
His faith in those players was rewarded with a 3-0 victory that left the Gunners needing only a draw at home versus Qarabag in their group finale to claim Group E honours and seeding for the knockout round. Emile Smith-Rowe and Joe Willock had first-half goals on either side of Aaron Ramsey’s penalty on 27 minutes.
Of the three goal-scorers, only Ramsey stands any chance of playing for Arsenal in this contest. As much as Emery is trying to prepare for the derby as just another match, he knows it is impossible to avoid the scrutiny and increased attention that comes with facing Tottenham (10-0-3).
“Each match for me is very special,” said Emery, who is friends with Spurs counterpart Mauricio Pochettino. “The derby is perhaps more special because my responsibility is bigger because of every supporter. Also we need three points in the league because we want to be closer to the other teams, like Tottenham, and we have this challenge.”
It’s a different match on Sunday against Tottenham, but the derby for every supporter is different. For us it’s the same but also with a cool head and our thinking on three points. In the last matches we drew and also Tottenham have a three point lead over us, and we will do a lot of things to prepare for a difficult game and a tough match, but we need to deliver the best performance to win.”
The main talking point around Emery’s lineup selection has been Mesut Ozil. The former Germany international was a surprise omission from the first XI and did not play in last weekend’s 2-1 victory at Bournemouth, with the manager not liking the matchup against the physical Cherries defence for Ozil.
Considering how Wenger all but wrote Ozil’s name in lineup in pen for every match, the pragmatic approach Emery took caught most by off-guard, and he is not tipping his hand whether the playmaker will make his return in this contest.
“I don’t know because tomorrow is the last training, but every player is very important with their qualities,” Emery demurred when asked. “We need to continue preparing and continue improving in our work and as a team with bigger performances and individual quality. I will prepare for the match with every player.”
Tottenham’s unbeaten run pales in length when compared to Arsenal’s current stretch, but the Lilywhites have been impressive all the same with six wins on the bounce in all competitions while remaining within touching distance of leaders Manchester City.
The chance at a second derby victory in a span of eight days around a Champions League triumph that gave them a fighting chance to reach the knockout round for a second straight year has sent Spurs supporters’ spirits soaring as the quality of a side that provided a good portion of England’s World Cup squad has shined in part due to Pochettino’s deft tactics and man management.
Start with last weekend’s 3-1 romp at Wembley over Chelsea in which Pochettino flummoxed counterpart Maurizio Sarru by playing a diamond midfield with Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane on the wings. The formation forced Chelsea midfielder Jorginho to stay deeper than normal in his midfield role, and when one of his midfielders pushed forward, there would be pockets of space to pour into. Kane and Dele Alli – the forward tip of the diamond – scored in the first 16 minutes before Son blazed by Jorginho and added a third after the restart.
The momentum continued with Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Inter Milan that gave the Lilywhites a chance to reach the round of 16. Granted, having what is essentially a must-win match at the Nou Camp versus already-qualified Barcelona is less than ideal, but after taking one point from their first three matches, Spurs are taking the fight to teams – epitomized by Christian Eriksen’s winner seven minutes from time.
“The mentality so far is good, now it’s about delivering the job,” Pochettino said at his Friday news conference. “We have the belief and that is the most important thing in football and the faith that you can beat any team away from home.
“It’s a special game, it’s tough to play this sort of game, it means more. We know that it means to our fans this game. The players feel that and are aware what it means. We have a lot of players that have arrived to the first team from the academy and they know what it means.”
Pochettino does have some selection decisions to make, most notably along his back four. Centre back Jan Vertonghen made his return in a pressure cooker of a situation after a 10-game absence due to a hamstring injury. With Juan Foyth available after not being on the initial Champions League roster, it is possible Pochettino will turn to the young Argentina international and not tax the veteran Belgian further this week.
Right back Kieran Trippier may be available after missing the last two games due to a groin injury, and left back Danny Rose could be in line for his first appearance in 10 showings after making the bench midweek. Ben Davies, though, has made the most of his playing time since Rose got hurt and could get one more start.
Up front, Erik Lamela will be a match-time decision due to a thigh injury, but Pochettino has plenty of options there as he can start Eriksen – who came off the bench on 70 minutes versus Inter – as well as Son or Lucas Moura.
The Lilywhites have a miserable record at both Highbury and the Emirates in the Premier League era with just two wins in 27 overall matches (2-10-15). The lone victory in the last 26 was a 3-2 triumph in 2010 after fighting back from two down. Arsenal are 5-3-0 in the last eight at the Emirates and posted a 2-0 victory last term as Shkodran Mustafi and the since-departed Alexis Sanchez scored five minutes apart late in the first half.
Per Bet365, Arsenal are narrow favourites to extend their unbeaten run at 13/8, while Tottenham are a 7/4 selection to win the match and keep the heat on Liverpool for second. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 13/5.
Oddsmakers are expecting a back-and-forth affair with 4/7 odds of there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 11/8 odds on a total under that threshold. There are 4/9 odds neither keeper will post a clean sheet compared to a 13/8 return for a shutout on either or potentially both sides.
Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are joint-leaders for the first goal-scorer options at 10/3, with Arsenal’s Alexander Lacazette at 5/1 edging out Spurs’ Fernando Llorente (6/1) for the third spot. A mix of players — Nketiah, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Moura — are all 13/2 while Son lurks just behind the trio at 15/2.
For any-time scorers, Kane and Aubameyang are better than even money to find the back of the net at 4/5 odds, while Lacazette is again third, this time with a 13/10 return. Of the more intriguing options in a match that figures to be a back-and-forth affair, Son is 2/1 while Alli and Eriksen are both 11/4 picks for the Lilywhites. Moura and Mkhitaryan are 7/4 picks while Ozil is a 3/1 option for the Gunners.
Compared to the feeling like the world will end at Merseyside if there is a loser between Liverpool and Everton, the north London derby rages white hot because of the expectation both teams are going to put on a show. Arsenal laid down an important marker in their draw against Liverpool when Emery went all out and got a deserved equaliser through Lacazette, that they will no longer curl into the fetal position when adversity arrives.
The change in culture and accountability Emery has instilled in less than a year on the job is nothing short of remarkable, and it is now starting to dawn on Manchester United and the other hopefuls for a top-five spot just how hard it is going to be to dislodge Arsenal from that spot or potentially higher in the table depending on how they survive the holiday fixture list and then evolve from that point forward.
Then there are Spurs, who come into this match with a full tailwind and esprit de corps in a bid to cap what would be a truly glorious eight days around the construction cones of White Hart Lane. Tottenham are fully deserving of the plaudits given to them, first last weekend with their pillar-to-post thrashing of Chelsea and then mid-week with their relentlessness to see off Inter late.
While there are some injury concerns for this match — will Lamela play, is Trippier healthy, does Pochettino trust Vertonghen’s hamstring to survive two high-impact matches four days apart — Spurs are all they got right now, and they are making it more than enough. For this derby, though, this is where Kane must be the bogeyman of the Emirates like he is for the Gunners at White Hart Lane.
Note: This has not been due to a lack of effort or results since has has seven goals in eight lifetime matches versus Arsenal. It’s just his two match-winners have come at home, and there would be nothing more fitting than to see Tottenham see out these eight days with their talisman putting the finishing touch on a slumpbuster.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 2, Tottenham 3.
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