Derby games are sometimes cagey affairs with far more interesting events happening in the stands than on the pitch. The last four North London derbies have been like that. Two 1-0 wins for Arsenal, a 2-0 win in the FA Cup, which was far less competitive than the scoreline indicates, and the 1-1 draw from September that was notable for Nacer Chadli telling the Emirates crowd to keep quiet than the game itself. But on Saturday, the situation will likely be different.
Both teams are, for once, at the height of their powers and in good form. Arsenal are coming off a 5-0 thrashing of Aston Villa. They are, healthy and have a dynamic attack that has been lethal on the field. Despite the clarion calls for Arsene Wenger to sign a defensive midfielder, which he hasn’t done recently and probably won’t ever again, Francis Coquelin has proven to be the answer, at least temporarily. With the signing of Gabriel Paulista, the prospect of a relative meek Round of 16 Champions League tie ahead, and a squad that’s found its home on the pitch – not the trainer’s table – the vibes around the Emirates Stadium are nothing but positive heading into derby day.
They may be matched or exceeded by the good feelings in N17 though. Fresh off clinching a trip to Wembley, Spurs are coming off a comfortable 3-0 win away to West Brom. Many Spurs supporters were expecting some sort of let down after escaping out of Sheffield United with a trip to Wembley in tow. But it was a comfortable one in the end, in small part thanks to Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen. Both are in red-hot form right now, and are two of the best players in their positions currently in the Premier League. Spurs also have Nabil Bentaleb back from the Africa Cup of Nations duty just in time and have just signed one of the most promising English talents in Dele Alli. With a clean bill of health, the spirits around White Hart Lane almost couldn’t be any brighter.
Usually, the narrative in these games involves one team trying to prove itself or inflict damage on opponent’s season. It certainly was like that back in September, when Spurs were flagging and needed confidence, which they gained with a 1-1 draw at the Emirates. That’s not the case this time, since Spurs finally shook off their big game funk when they thrashed Chelsea 5-3 at the Lane a month ago. Spurs have confidence in themselves now, not only in the players they have but in their manager, and it’s clear now that many supporters do to. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane can usually be toxic, but for the derby, especially with the way Spurs are playing right now, it most certainly won’t be.
The narrative that hasn’t changed is that this game is critical in the race for Champions League spots. Arsenal are two points ahead of Spurs in fifth, and behind Southampton only on goal difference. They can put some distance between themselves and Spurs on Saturday, while Spurs with a win would leapfrog their North London rivals. Since spots three through to seven in the league are wide open, this game is a critical one in both Spurs and Arsenal’s season.
North London derbies usually flag about and end up being games to forget. Saturday’s could be one to remember.
Programming note: For viewers in the United States, the Spurs-Arsenal derby will be shown live on NBCSN at 7:45am ET/4:45am PT.
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