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Arsenal vs. Spurs preview: North London bragging rights are on the line

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Even if both Spurs and Arsenal were languishing in the relegation zone, or even the third tier, the North London Derby would always be a game that defined seasons. So this Sunday’s tilt, with Arsenal tied on points at the top of the table and having won five Premier League games in a row, and Spurs in fifth and unbeaten in 10 league games since their opening match, may be the most important derby in years.

Ever since 1995, Spurs have had an inferiority complex towards their North London rivals, who have lapped them in successes in the table, on the pitch and in the trophy cabinet. Recently, of course, the gap has closed, but the red half of North London still has the edge. Heading into this Derby, however, even after Arsenal has already knocked Spurs out of the League Cup, it feels like a seismic shift in the balance of power could be in the offing.

Arsenal is not at full strength physically or psychologically after being demolished 5-1 in Munich on Wednesday. Their league form has been stellar, but they have only won two of six matches outside of the league, and haven’t looked good while doing so. Spurs have only lost three games in all competitions, though most of their results this season have been draws, not wins.

On the pitch Sunday at the Emirates, the battle will be won in midfield. Arsenal will have to find a way to stop Mousa Dembele not only from scoring but from anchoring Spurs’ high pressing system. In the February game at White Hart Lane, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla were unable to cope with that press, specifically his pressing and strength on the dribble, which directly lead to Spurs’ attacks and quality chances. Those two, who will anchor Arsenal’s midfield once again Sunday, will have to deal with a Dembele that is not only great at spearheading the press but is in form scoring goals and is wildly confident.

Likewise, Spurs have to keep Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in check, which is easier said than done. Spurs’ defender-cum-midfielder Eric Dier has been one of the revelations of the season in English soccer and will be looking to impress further after earning his first senior England call up. Arsenal’s x-factor could well be Olivier Giroud, who himself is in form and firing after having been benched in favor of Theo Walcott, but has now found himself leading the line and scoring most of the goals since Walcott went down injured again. And don’t forget Joel Campbell, whose pace and trickery on the wing in the spaces vacated behind Danny Rose when he marauds forward could be a critical tactical flaw that Arsenal may need to exploit if they want to breach Spurs’ staunch centerback pairing.

If Arsenal win Sunday, it will further consolidate their title credentials. If Spurs stun the Emirates, they not only have to be considered as true top four contenders but possibly dark horse title contenders, as well. They will have finally won away to one of the clubs that finished above or around them in table, and depending on how they do it, they will have found an essence to their play that has only appeared in brief but glorious spurts throughout Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure at White Hart Lane.

Spurs haven’t won at the Emirates since their famous 3-2 comeback in 2010 and have lost four of the last five derbies there. They’ll no doubt be confident after drawing there 1-1 last term and having already beaten Arsenal at the Lane in February. With Spurs at full tilt and Arsenal weakened by some critical injuries, Spurs may be seen as favorites. Even then, it’s hard to imagine Arsenal not responding in kind after being humiliated on Wednesday, and what better way to do it than against their biggest rivals …

All of which means it will probably end in a damp squib, like the Manchester Derby did. Here’s hoping it doesn’t.

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