Tottenham vs. Arsenal: Season Defining NLD at the Lane
It’s come down to this. Tottenham. Arsenal. The North London Derby. Earlier this season, the former were humbled away from home. This Sunday, they’re looking to make amends. The prize? The usual bragging rights, pub ammo, and prestige of course. But there’s also something bigger, something crucial to both sides’ future. For the winner of this derby, a Champions League berth becomes more of a reality.
Spurs, currently sitting in third in the league table, are four points ahead of the visitors going into Sunday’s match. They haven’t lost in the league in 2013, recently sealed their progress past Lyon in the Europa League, and possess the league’s undisputed on-form player in Gareth Bale. For them, a Champions League spot may be a necessity to keep their star man, and their recent form shows that they are serious about securing it. At this point last season they were wilting under Redknapp. Under AVB this year, they look primed for the run-in.
Arsenal’s fortunes, by contrast, have been mixed over the same period. A demoralizing thrashing at the hands of Bayern in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie means that barring a miracle in Munich, they’ll be out of the competition next week. Their league form has been relatively solid over the last month, with some impressive battling performances against the likes of Stoke and Villa, but they are not hitting their traditional heights in an attacking sense. Podolski and Giroud could do much better, and Walcott has looked a shadow of the player he was pre-contract extension, when he was widely hyped by Arsenal fans as better than Bale. Few, you’d think, would venture to make that claim at present.
It hasn’t been all rosy for Spurs either, though, and they have met with criticism recently despite their excellent run of form. The same allegations of “one-man team” that haunted a Robin van Persie-led Arsenal last season are dogging them of late due to a perceived over-reliance on the brilliant Bale. But opposition fans looking to pin the Lilywhites’ successes squarely on the Welshman’s shoulders are a bit off the mark. Fact is, several other players have played vital roles in the home side’s recent positive run.
Perhaps most notable of the supporting cast to Bale’s lead role has been Frenchman Hugo Lloris. The impressive keeper made a game-saving stop in the London derby against West Ham this past Monday, denying a 1v1 chance that would have put West Ham two goals up. His solidity and awareness at the back has been the springboard from which the rest of the squad can gain the confidence to play an aggressive pressing game with a high defensive line. This in turn allows players like Bale, Holtby, and Dembele to shine in possession, as the team wins the ball and gets it to them more quickly and frequently. Put simply, with Lloris in goal the entire team just plays more efficiently and confidently.
The form of both sides, and indeed individual players like Cazorla, Lloris, and Bale, makes this NLD tough to call. Spurs would in theory have the edge as the home side, but they have actually picked up more points away from the Lane than in front of their home fans this season. Arsenal’s away form is somewhat more erratic, but they always seem to raise their game against their rivals. Tottenham fans will be hoping struggling striker Emmanuel Adebayor will be up for the match with his former employers, and also smart enough to avoid getting sent off as he did in the reverse fixture at the Emirates earlier this year. Arsenal, though, may want the points more desperately, and will need Cazorla and Podolski on song to avoid the psychological blow of losing further ground on their rivals with a derby defeat.
I’m expecting a lively one here. A Champions League place is calling out to us Lilywhites. Let’s hope the boys answer with authority on Sunday. I’ll call this one 3-2 to Spurs, with Bale and Cazorla the difference makers for their respective sides.
By Mike Schmidt
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