ESPN Soccernet Preview: Arsenal v Tottenham
Emirates Stadium is the setting for the first North London derby of the season, and the 162nd instalment of one of football's fiercer rivalries. Ever since Sir Henry Norris moved Arsenal away from Woolwich and into their more northerly surrounds in 1913, and subsequently engineered a highly-contentious promotion in 1919, there has been a distinct lack of neighbourly spirit between the two clubs. On Saturday, Arsenal need to respond to having twice lost the lead to draw with AZ Alkmaar and then West Ham in successive games, while the team travelling south down Seven Sisters Road will be looking to restate their apparent Champions League ambitions following a home defeat to Stoke.
With the two clubs locked together on 19 points, it has been debated whether Arsenal and Tottenham are more evenly matched than at any time in recent history. But that would do a disservice to the Spurs side under Martin Jol that would have clinched Champions League football ahead of the Gunners in 2006 but for a dodgy lasagne. Harry Redknapp's current crop of players have started the season impressively though; winning six, drawing one and losing three of their ten Premier League games. Arsenal have played a game less and are the league's top scorers with 29 goals in nine outings. Whether we witness a goalfest like the 4-4 draw in the same fixture last season remains to be seen.
But as much as Tottenham supporters, and perhaps Robbie Keane, may feel that current parity in the league standings translates to an even contest, history suggests otherwise. No less than nine Spurs managers have tried and failed to outwit Arsene Wenger on his home turf and the club's last victory in N5 came in 1993. Tottenham's manager on that occasion was Doug Livermore. Arsenal have a far superior history in domestic competition and last finished below their rivals in the table in 1995. If that situation is reversed this season, then those perennial Tottenham predictions of imminent Champions League qualification may well come true.
Arsenal player in focus: Andrei Arshavin. How different would the North London balance of power be if the Russian genius had joined Spurs after Euro 2008 last summer? A move to White Hart Lane collapsed and now Arshavin faces his former suitors for the first time. He has been in impressive form this season, scoring five goals, and will seek to torment the Spurs defence at every given opportunity, whether cutting in from his now customary wide position or drifting into the centre to link up with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie.
Tottenham player in focus: David Bentley. A stunning goal in the derby at Emirates Stadium last season looked set to catapult Bentley back into contention for club and country but he quickly faded into obscurity, with his manager recently questioning his mentality and motivation. An injury to Aaron Lennon could hand him his first league start of the season against his former side and Bentley will be determined to prove he is no spent force, particularly against a home support that will jeer his every touch.
Key battle: Cesc Fabregas v Wilson Palacios. The Arsenal captain has been in imperious form this season, greedily accumulating four goals and nine assists after only eight games. Having been rested in midweek he will be ready to take the game by the scruff of the neck but Palacios will be instructed to minimise his impact. The Honduran, who had a trial spell at Arsenal before Wenger decided against signing him in 2007, is one of the Premier League's more combative characters and if he can rattle Fabregas then Spurs could inhibit Arsenal's attacking ambitions.
Tactics: Arsenal's new 4-3-3 formation has suited Arsene Wenger's side well and they will adopt a similar shape against Tottenham, with the onus on slick passing and a high tempo in order to stretch and expose the visiting side. Arshavin and one other will perform in the wide roles, but Robin van Persie is the crucial man in attack. Tottenham look settled in a 4-4-2 formation but with Defoe absent, they may adopt more of a direct approach to utilise Peter Crouch's height. A lot will rest on whether Palacios and Tom Huddlestone can keep up with their opponents.
Quotes: Arshavin on the derby: "For us this is the most important derby and we know it. I found out about the importance of these matches almost immediately after I signed for Arsenal. People who work for the club told me about it and about the most memorable clashes with Spurs. They told me that after some defeats they couldn't even speak to each other for a long time."
Robbie Keane on Tottenham's squad strength: "You look at the two squads and we're definitely on a par. In the last four or five years Arsenal always managed to get ahead of us but if you look now it is even. It will be judged at the end of the season but if you look at the bench we have, it is probably a bit stronger than their bench."
In the news: North London enjoyed dominance over Merseyside in the Carling Cup in midweek as Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-1 and Spurs defeated Everton 2-0 at White Hart Lane. While Redknapp sent out a nearly full-strength side, with Tom Huddlestone and Robbie Keane on target, Wenger littered his side with young players and progressed thanks to goals from Fran Merida and Nicklas Bendtner. But the main talking point amongst supporters in the build-up to the game will inevitably be Robbie Keane's claim that Tottenham's squad is just as strong as that of their near neighbours. That squad depth has led Roman Pavlyuchenko to consider his future with the striker's agent hinting at a January exit on Thursday.
Arsenal team news: Samir Nasri made his first appearance of the season against Liverpool after recovering from a broken leg and will be in the squad. Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo also made their first starts following injury but Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Denilson are out. Manuel Almunia and Vito Mannone are fighting for the gloves as Lukasz Fabianski is out for three weeks.
Tottenham team news: Redknapp is deprived of top scorer Jermain Defoe as a result of his red card against Portsmouth while winger Aaron Lennon, who has started every league game this season, is expected to miss out due to an ankle problem. Luka Modric remains sidelined while doubts persist over defenders Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King.
Probable Arsenal line-up (4-3-3): Almunia, Sagna, Vermaelen, Gallas, Clichy, Song, Fabregas, Diaby, Bendtner, Van Persie, Arshavin.
Probable Tottenham line-up (4-4-2): Gomes, Corluka, Bassong, King, Assou-Ekotto, Bentley, Palacios, Huddlestone, Kranjcar, Crouch, Keane.
Soccernet prediction: Arsenal will not surrender their lengthy unbeaten home record against Spurs and given that Redknapp is missing key players in Lennon and Defoe, the home side's superior class should tell. Expect a narrow home win.