FOX Sports presenter Edward Russell looks ahead to this weekend’s must-win north London derby…
When I last sat down to write this column a week ago, I touched on how Arsenal desperately needed to collect all three points from their trip to Old Trafford if they had any ambitions of remaining in the Premier League title hunt. With an almost full strength squad back in action though, I, along with many others, had a strong belief that Arsenal would be able to win away at United for the first time in the league in a decade.
Well, a week may be a long time in politics, but it’s an even longer time in football, especially with the fixtures coming thick and fast as the season reaches its incredibly unpredictable conclusion.
Not only did Arsenal absolutely capitulate against a vastly young and inexperienced United side last Sunday, but they then suffered a similarly crushing defeat at home to Swansea on Wednesday night, in a fixture that most would have again expected them to win.
Whilst the Gunners faithful saw their title chances rapidly slipping away from them in the torrid rain of north London, about 15km to the east, their bitter rivals Tottenham were suffering a similar fate at the hands of West Ham. So with the gap between the two sides remaining at only three points, there could not be a more intriguing and critical time for the north London derby to rear its merciless head.
Arsenal form and team news
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) March 3, 2016
The atmosphere inside The Emirates following the final whistle against Swansea was heated to say the least, compounding a miserable week for the Gunners that has seen them lose three times in the space of eight days. It won’t just be the results that have angered their supporters though, as much as the manner in which they were all conceded.
At home to Barcelona last Tuesday night, Arsenal were on top for the majority of the game and looked the most likely to earn a vital first leg win. However, one momentary lapse of concentration from Per Mertesacker allowed Lionel Messi through on goal, and in an instant 71 minutes of good work had been undone.
Against Swansea the story was very much the same. Even though this time around Joel Campbell finished off a lovely passing move to take advantage of his side’s domination, the Gunners should really have been 3-0 up within the first half hour, with Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud both spurning glorious chances. Yet just as it was against the Catalans, the Arsenal back four switched off again in the 32nd minute to let Wayne Routledge through on goal, and from then on in the confidence emphatically drained from the home side.
The Mertesacker – Gabriel makeshift pairing was no doubt at fault for that goal, and with Laurent Koscielny sidelined with a calf injury, Arsenal fans will be worried that the two defenders could well allow a certain Harry Kane similar space in front of goal at White Hart Lane. Of even more concern will be the absence of the assured presence of Petr Cech between the posts. The Czech keeper picked up an injury in the final minute of the Swansea game, and in his place will come David Ospina, who will be dreadfully lacking match-time having still not featured in the league this season.
Tottenham form and team news
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) March 3, 2016
Tottenham will very much fancy their chances then in one of the most important north London derbies in recent memory. In contrast to the lacklustre Arsenal attack, Spurs have been relatively free-scoring, putting three past Fiorentina in the Europa League last week before two goals in seven minutes beat Swansea on Sunday.
While their most recent loss to West Ham may have dampened the mood somewhat, the men in white are very much the team in form coming into the derby, having won six Premier League games in a row prior to their visit to The Boleyn Ground.
By his own lofty standards, Harry Kane has been rather quiet as of late, but the beauty of this current Tottenham squad is that there are alternative goal-scorers aplenty, with the likes of Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen all on song in recent weeks.
Dele Alli will most likely return to the fray having been rested in midweek, and Francis Coquelin will no doubt have his hands full keeping quiet what has arguably been the success story of Spurs’ campaign thus far.
How will it end?
ON THIS DAY: In 2013, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale both scored as Spurs beat Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane. pic.twitter.com/875nB8V3CL
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 3, 2016
Prior to the West Ham game, Harry Kane declared that his side “don’t fear anyone”, and indeed it is more likely to be the crest-fallen Arsenal who will be least looking forward to this tie. A loss for Spurs on home soil would obviously be demoralising but not necessarily disastrous, as they boast a far superior goal difference to their rivals and arguably the easier run-in of fixtures as well.
A defeat for the Gunners, however, would once and for all put an end to their title challenge for another season, and judging by his abject despair following their loss to Swansea, quite possibly an end to Arsène Wenger’s reign come the end of the season as well.
FOX Sports presenter