Football: More than pride at stake today

Arsenal's Mesut Oezil (left) and Olivier Giroud (right) reacting during the English Premier League game between Arsenal and Swansea City on March 2, 2016.
Arsenal's Mesut Oezil (left) and Olivier Giroud (right) reacting during the English Premier League game between Arsenal and Swansea City on March 2, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Spurs could go 6 points clear and deal Gunners' title charge deadly blow with win

White Hart Lane is a venue that holds happy memories for Arsenal. Their most recent league title was sealed on Tottenham's turf.

But that was back in 2004 and it seems ever likelier to remain Arsene Wenger's last championship.

Arsenal revisit enemy territory today with the risk that their Premier League title hopes could take a fatal blow at the hands of Spurs.

 

This is about a local rivalry and a national prize. Arsenal fans invariably celebrate what they call St Totteringham's Day, the annual occasion when it is mathematically impossible for Spurs to finish ahead of them.

Yet, a Spurs win today would put Mauricio Pochettino's well-drilled team six points ahead of Wenger's increasingly ragged group.

While they both suffered Wednesday defeats, by West Ham and Swansea respectively, Tottenham enter the derby in far superior shape. They have six wins in seven league games, Arsenal two. Wenger's men have lost their last three matches in all competitions.

A fourth setback would render this officially their worst run since 2002.

Tottenham are afforded the sort of opportunity they have rarely had in recent years and which a team with their growing ruthlessness seem primed to take.

Arsenal are in a state of disrepair. Their best goalkeeper and centre-back, Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny, are injured, giving an already leaky defence, which has been breached seven times in 200 minutes, a still more porous look.

Only Danny Welbeck of their forwards is in any sort of form, with Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott all enduring barren runs. Mesut Oezil has carried on creating but Arsenal have a capacity to be carved open in midfield, where Santi Cazorla's absence is increasingly felt with every match.

Tottenham go into the game as favourites partly because they have fewer injuries and players who have peaked more recently, but largely too because of their greater cohesiveness.

Pochettino's pressing ethos has given them a high-energy approach. They threatened to overwhelm Arsenal at the Emirates in November before a tiring team conceded an equaliser to substitute Kieran Gibbs. Now they look fitter and fresher than their neighbours. They have taken 17 points from losing positions this season, a testament to their indefatigability.

They should also welcome the pivotal Dele Alli back to the starting line-up, perhaps even Mousa Dembele too.

They have obvious weaknesses to target, such as the centre-back partnership between Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista, and the incentive of going top of the table, even if it is only for a few hours.

Yet for years Arsenal were defined by an ability to beat Tottenham and finish ahead of them, regardless of whatever else was happening. Not for the first time, Wenger needs to emulate his earlier self, to leave Tottenham tottering and Arsenal in the ascendant in north London.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'MORE THAN PRIDE AT STAKE TODAY'. Print Edition | Subscribe