What: English Premier League
Who: Arsenal vs Tottenham
When: Sunday 26th February, 2012, at 13:30 UK Time
Where: Emirates Stadium, London, England
Unfamiliar Territory for Wenger
Arsene Wenger must surely feel the tide turning rapidly against him. Having built up a huge bank of credit for the undeniably brilliant work he did in his opening years in charge at the Gunners, the Frenchman has emptied all surplus good will afforded to him. Arsenal’s probable exit from the Champions League and FA Cup loss last weekend have left the club with one remaining ambition for the season, to finish fourth.
It is starting to feel like groundhog day for Arsenal’s fans, whose patience is wearing thin. Abject displays from a number of the first team have left supporters disconsolate and with a distinctly unusual feeling – staring enviously up the table and across North London to Tottenham Hotspur. A team who had become so used to superiority over their rivals now are having to get used to second best.
Still, this clash is a fresh slate, and Wenger will be boosted by the return of Laurent Koscielny, one of the Gunners’ better performers this season, as well as a week’s much needed rest. Though the 4-0 defeat in Milan last week was a truly shambolic display of defensive disorganisation, Wenger will feel reassured that he has what he would consider his first choice defence in place.
In fact, the Frenchman can select a first choice eleven, bar Jack Wilshere, for this derby. And it is worth remembering that amid the chaos that has been the 2011/12 campaign, an Arsenal team with a defence weaker than this went on an impressive run following the last meeting of these two teams earlier this season. The Gunners need to do that again if they are to enjoy Champions League football once more next season.
No Sign of Letting Up
Though the Manchester clubs lead the way, Tottenham have been arguably the revelation of the season. Seemingly free of all pressures, no-one expected Spurs to finish in the top four given the quality of their rivals, and having evidently never really cared for the Europa League, Tottenham have enjoyed one of their best seasons in recent memory.
Gareth Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor take many of the plaudits for their fine performances and goals, as does boss Harry Redknapp for getting Tottenham to play some of the best football in the English Premier League this season, but that would be to neglect the work of possibly the country’s finest midfielder, Luka Modric, whose passing is precise and usually incisive.
A well balanced team has width and pace on both flanks, and with two of the best full backs in the league, Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Tottenham have that most devastating trio of characteristics; pace, movement and passing. The three things combined are what it takes to carve open stubborn defences and leave opponents dizzy, as happened to Newcastle earlier this month.
If Redknapp’s men can come out of February in touch with the Manchester sides ahead of them, then they stand a real chance of lifting the title, given that their most difficult fixtures will have almost all been ticked off the calendar by then.
Sunderland 2-0 Arsenal (18/02; FA Cup)
AC Milan 4-0 Arsenal (15/02; Champions League)
Sunderland 1-2 Arsenal (11/02; Premier League)
Stevenage 0-0 Tottenham Hotspur (19/02; FA Cup)
Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 Newcastle (11/02; Premier League)
Liverpool 0-0 Tottenham Hotspur (06/02; Premier League)
Arsenal: Jack Wilshere; Abou Diaby; Per Mertesacker; Andre Santos; Aaron Ramsey (doubt)
Tottenham Hotspur: William Gallas; Tom Huddlestone; Sandro (doubt); Ledley King (doubt)
Players to watch
Arsenal – Alex Song: Song has not been at his best in recent weeks but when he is on form he is invaluable to Arsenal. A typical Wenger style defensive midfielder, Song bursts forward from midfield and can produce skilful turns to beat opponents and set up key goals, as he has done against Chelsea, Everton and Borussia Dortmund already this season. Defensively, he will be vital for Arsenal as they look to stem the supply line that Bale and co. rely upon from Luka Modric and Scott Parker. His return to form would be timely.
Tottenham Hotspur – Luka Modric: The perpetually underrated Croatian is often the main man in this Tottenham team. Both tenacious and hard working defensively, he helps Spurs make the transition from defensive to attacking phases quicker than most of their rivals with his inch perfect passing from deep. What makes Modric a better passer than most is his ability to play the ball into the spaces that open up in front of his team-mates, and not just directly to their feet. Arsenal will have to prevent him from being able to find the space to spray those killer balls, or it may be another long afternoon for Wenger.
Arsenal do, despite their problems, have a relatively first choice team to call on here and will be refreshed following the trauma of the last week. Wenger will have his men playing their usual attacking passing game, but then so will Redknapp for Spurs.
Expect long periods of possession for both teams and a game which will be played down the flanks. Bale and Aaron Lennon will be able to take advantage of the inevitable space Arsenal leave behind their full backs, but then the same will go for Theo Walcott and Gervinho with Spurs’ backline. The Ivorian’s influence in particular cannot be underestimated – his departure for the African Cup of Nations coincided with the Gunners’ loss of form, and the number of goals he has set up for Robin van Persie this season has been invaluable.
For Spurs, the absence of Emmanuel Adebayor would be a major blow, though they could count on Louis Saha to lead the line if the Togo man is not fit. Expect a game with plenty of attacking play but perhaps fewer clear cut chances. Spurs’ showed maturity in drawing at Liverpool earlier this month, and as then, probably will not go all out for the three points. Arsenal’s ability to break down a well drilled defence is often in question, and Tottenham’s is one of the best in the league. Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur.
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