Arsenal, Spurs prepare for North London derby with title implications
Saturday marks the biggest North London derby in history. Not only will the meeting settle bragging rights in North London, but the result could go some way to determining where the Premier League title lands as Arsenal and Tottenham attempt to reel in Leicester City.
Ben Pearce (Tottenham) and James McNicholas (Arsenal) preview Saturday's fixture from White Hart Lane.
Ben Pearce: There's a huge sense of anticipation. The North London derby at White Hart Lane is always one of the biggest games of the season anyway, but the fact that Tottenham are right in the thick of the title race this time alongside Arsenal -- well, above Arsenal! -- and that this showdown could have such a big bearing on where the trophy goes gives it so much extra importance.
But the Tottenham players say they fear no one, and if their supporters can embrace that spirit and confidence, then they can look forward to Saturday's game and see it as a huge opportunity, rather than an occasion to fear.
James McNicholas: Just a bit. This is always a mildly terrifying game because the consequences of defeat are so grave. It's not just about the points, it's about having to face the text messages, the tweets, the unbearable drone of the Spurs fans at every turn.
The nerves are jangling a little more than usual because of two added factors. First, with the Premier League title up for grabs, the stakes are higher than ever. Second, there's Arsenal's disastrous form to consider. After three consecutive defeats, the side don't look anything like ready for a game of this magnitude. Apparently, form goes out the window in derbies. Arsenal fans will be praying that truism is proved correct.
This is the most important North London derby in Premier League history, right?
Pearce: It's probably bigger than that. The game at the Emirates in February 2012 still looks like an important one in terms of the balance of power in North London. Spurs had a 10-point lead and then also a 2-0 advantage on the day, but they lost 5-2 and ended up missing out on the Champions League. Four years on, they are still trying to return to Europe's top competition.
However, we are talking about the title now, rather than just a top-four finish, and the crux of the matter is that both clubs have a huge opportunity that might not come around again for a while. Arsenal's 12-year title drought has been much publicised, and this has finally looked like their big opportunity. On the other hand, Spurs haven't won the league since 1961, and they have never finished higher than fourth in the Premier League era.
If Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United get their acts together next season, then the North London clubs may well be pushed down the ranking again. This is a rare and precious chance for both teams, and the possibility of watching their arch-rivals parading the trophy through the streets within miles of their own stadium will galvanise everyone this weekend.
McNicholas: There've certainly been some big ones in the past. As an Arsenal fan, I'm particularly partial to the one in 2003-04 when Spurs had to beat Arsenal to stop them claiming the Premier League title. They didn't, and Thierry Henry & Co. celebrated in the centre circle at White Hart Lane.
I suppose the difference this time is that both sides have a shot at winning the league. There's been a lot of talk about power shifts in this derby over the past few years, most of which have proven to be ill-founded. However, if Spurs can beat Arsenal this time and consolidate their lead in the table, then Arsenal fans may have to accept that they've fallen behind their neighbours. It's a truly sickening thought.
What does a win do for your season?
Pearce: It gives Tottenham a six-point lead over Arsenal -- an invaluable margin of error -- and provides another huge boost of momentum and belief. It might just be the killer blow for Arsenal too, and possibly even their long-serving manager. A fourth successive defeat -- against Spurs of all teams and in a genuine title six-pointer -- would surely cause uproar among their supporters and result in more anger toward Arsene Wenger. It would hardly be the best conditions for a spirited fightback.
McNicholas: A win keeps hopes of the title alive -- just about. Arsenal don't look like potential champions, but the one consolation is that none of the other contenders are particularly convincing either. Victory here would bring Arsenal level with Spurs and keep Leicester within touching distance. Defeat, on the other hand, would deepen the gloom around the club and raise serious questions about the viability of heading into next season with Wenger at the helm.
Who finishes higher?
Pearce: We have been here before, particularly in 2012 when Tottenham were well ahead of Arsenal, and Wenger's boys have always come out on top in the end -- they always seem to finish strongly. If Spurs reach the latter stages of the Europa League, that could affect them; and Arsenal are unlikely to have many more Champions League games this season, although they are still involved in the FA Cup. Those other competitions could be a factor, but it is difficult to bet against Spurs at the moment. If they win on Saturday then they are firmly in the driving seat.
McNicholas: Traditionally, Arsenal fans celebrate St. Totteringham's Day -- the day on which it's officially confirmed that the Gunners will finish above Spurs in that season -- every year. Right now, it looks as if 2016 might not have a St. Totteringham's Day to speak of. Wenger has not yet failed to finish above Spurs, but it will take a dramatic shift in form for that to happen this time round. There is precedent, but with away games against the likes of Everton and Manchester City still to come, it's difficult to be too optimistic.
How will this one be decided?
Pearce: The key for me is Tottenham's finishing. They generally start quickly at the Lane but have a habit of missing chances, and their visitors then gradually grow into the game. Spurs usually create plenty of opportunities at home so they just need to be clinical. If Mousa Dembele is available, that would be a big boost as he is a key man in midfield, with an important ability to beat players in a small area and create space around him. That is so valuable in tight games.
McNicholas: Typically, this is a derby full of goals. However, at the moment Arsenal have lost their clinical touch. Olivier Giroud is in the midst of his worse run since joining the club with no goals in his past 10 appearances, and the out-of-sorts Alexis Sanchez hasn't been much better. With Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny both out, Arsenal can't afford to bank on a clean sheet. They need to hope their forwards can suddenly rediscover the goal-scoring knack, or this could be a particularly painful day.
Pearce: Tottenham 1-0 Arsenal. In previous seasons, you knew Spurs had to score at least twice to win because they would almost certainly concede -- indeed, they have won three of the last four derbies at the Lane by a 2-1 scoreline. But things are different this year. Spurs have the best defensive record in the league and their visitors don't seem to be as dangerous as they have been previously. One goal could win it.
McNicholas: Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal. It might seem blasphemous to bet against my own club here, but I just can't see Arsenal finding a way to get anything from this game. The Gunners are listless at the moment, and Spurs will see this as a real chance to ignite their title challenge. Here's hoping I'm wrong.