Arsenal-Tottenham Hotspur Preview
Given the missed opportunities both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal had in tightening the top of the Premier League table, Saturday's matinée crunch encounter between the second-place Spurs and third-place Gunners at White Hart Lane has the feel of an elimination match piled on top of the already white-hot nature of this north London derby.
The two teams are coming off midweek losses, though Arsenal (15-6-7) are again the side with more questions to answer given their current lack of form. A 2-1 home defeat to relegation-threatened Swansea City made it three on the bounce for the Gunners, who are winless in four (0-1-3) across all competitions, three points back of Spurs and face a fortnight of reckoning on their three-front trophy chase.
The nature of Wednesday's reverse intensified the angst of the fan base. The Gunners grabbed an early lead, conceded an equaliser through slack defending after a perceived foul went uncalled, were unlucky in having three shots crash off the woodwork, and the Swans snatched a victory as the only two shots placed on target of the 11 they attempted were goals.
"Football is football, it is cruel sometimes," manager Arsene Wenger told Arsenal's official website. "It looked like everything was against us tonight."
Wenger refused to address his team's title chances after Wednesday's loss, but the crisis in confidence was stunningly laid bare by striker Alexis Sanchez, who's goalless in league play since Oct. 24. In a video released Wednesday, the Chile international told Directv Sports prior to last weekend's 3-2 loss to Manchester United that "sometimes we lack this hunger to believe that we can be champions ... the other team doesn't always win because it's superior. It is rather the little details."
The burden also weighs on forward Olivier Giroud, who thumped the crossbar from 10 yards right before halftime as his goal-scoring drought reached 10 matches in all competitions since a brace against Liverpool on Jan. 13.
Now add injury to insult - keeper Petr Cech is out at least three weeks after suffering a calf injury in a desperate sprint to defend his goal after joining the offence on a late corner kick - and the Gunners look hamstrung in trying to avoid their first four-match losing streak since Oct. 19-30, 2002.
Cech joins first-choice defender Laurent Koscielny on the sidelines, which puts more scrutiny on the central defence pairing of Gabriel and Per Mertesacker, with the former enduring a torrid time in Arsenal's last two league defeats.
In Cech's place will be David Ospina, whose gaffes during Champions League group play put the Gunners on a knife's edge to simply advance to the round of 16. That's the round their European hopes will likely be extinguished for a sixth straight year unless they can pull off a shock win March 16 over Barcelona at the Camp Nou by overturning a 2-0 deficit from the Feb. 23 first-leg loss that started this slide.
Ospina, though, was between the sticks when Arsenal posted a 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane on Sept. 23 in the third round of the League Cup. Mathieu Flamini had a brace on either side of an own goal by Calum Chambers, netting the winner on a sublime 20-yard volley on 78 minutes. Kieran Gibbs had preserved the 1-1 scoreline in the 66th minute by clearing Harry Kane's side volley from a corner off the line.
As Arsenal - who also must contend with a fifth-round FA Cup replay Tuesday at Hull City - deal with their self-inflicted woes, Tottenham Hotspur (15-9-4) are trying to regroup from a loss which put their fan base slightly on edge. It may have been a case of nerves for Spurs, who spit the bit in a 1-0 London derby defeat at surging West Ham United on Wednesday with the top of the table there for the taking.
The Lilywhites were on the back foot after a goal by Michail Antonio in the seventh minute and only grew into the match after intermission. The defeat dropped Tottenham three points behind Leicester City as their six-match winning streak ended, losing ground after the Foxes were held to a surprising draw by West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday.
"We made some mistakes in the first half and we're disappointed about that because it was difficult for us to be in the game and difficult for us to play the way we wanted to play," manager Mauricio Pochettino said after his team conceded inside 20 minutes for the second straight match. "I thought we played better in the second half, managed the game better and created chances but if you don't score, it's difficult to take any positive out of the game."
Taking positives from this match for Spurs may fall to 19-year-old Dele Alli, who appeared as a substitute in Wednesday's defeat as he deals with a foot injury. The pacey winger has not scored in seven contests since a match-winner against Norwich City on Feb. 2, but he's eager to make an impact in the north London derby.
"It's probably one of the biggest games in England - the world, even - and for us both to be up there fighting at the top of the table just makes it even bigger and even more special," Alli told Spurs' official website. "Wednesday's defeat was hard to take but we've got a lot of winners in the changing room. Nobody likes losing and it was a tough one to swallow but I'm sure we'll bounce back and we'll look to do that Saturday."
Alli played well in the reverse fixture at the Emirates, which ended in a 1-1 draw in November. Kane provided a lead just after the half-hour as Spurs enjoyed the run of play for most of the match, but Gibbs grabbed the equaliser for Arsenal on 77 minutes shortly after his introduction on the left wing.