LONDON: One of the Premier League’s most famous, fiercest local rivalries looms this weekend with both managers facing signs of drab disillusion among fans.
The two men in charge in Saturday lunchtime’s North London derby boast very different histories in England’s top-flight: Arsene Wenger has been a mainstay since 1995 while Andres Villas-Boas is at his second club in just two seasons.
Both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur sit comfortably in the top half of the table, Spurs seventh, one place above their hated neighbours. Yet both coaches know defeat at the Emirates Stadium would not only damage local bragging rights but confidence in pushing ahead and challenging for the essential top-four finish – the so-called ‘Wenger Trophy.’
AVB’s Tottenham come into the game on the back of three consecutive league defeats, two at the hands of pace-setters Chelsea and Manchester City but one in the middle at home to lowly Wigan Athletic.
Meanwhile, Arsenal suffered a more emphastic defeat at Manchester United than the 2:1 scoreline suggested – the anguish exacerbated on seeing old boy Robin Van Persie score the quickfire opening goal – before a haphazard 3-3 home draw against Fulham.
Early-season praise for the defensive organisational skills of Wenger’s newly-promoted assistant Steve Bould have swiftly evaporated.
After all, disappointed fans know the team will not always recover so impressively – nor face much shoddier opposition than Premier League new boys Reading – as in an amazing 7-5 League Cup triumph.
The summer loss of Van Persie – who has eight league goals for United – has not been adequately compensated by the arrivals of France’s Oliver Giroud nor Germany’s Lukas Podolski, with only six strikes equally divided between them.
The defensive likes of Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and, most surprisingly, new captain Thomas Vermaelen have also been struggling, not helped by an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
Home fans may at least be buoyed by memories of last season’s 5:2 dismissal of Tottenham in this fixture, a comeback win which kicked off the dramatic decline that cost Spurs the chance of Champions League qualification and cost manager Harry Redknapp his job.
Tottenham appear uncharacterically cautious under AVB, frequently squandering leads while the manager seems unsure whether to place faith in veteran Brad Friedel or new signing Hugo Lloris in goal, top scorer Jermain Defoe or ex-Arsenal forward Emmanuel Adebayor up-front.
There are also injury doubts over Defoe, pacy winger Aaron Lennon and struggling right-back Kyle Walker, though their absence from England duty in midweek may have been mere pre-derby precaution.
Even if Walker, last season’s Young Player of the Year, is fit enough to attempt a return to form, Wenger may frustrate his own supporters by yet again consigning top scorer Theo Walcott to the bench.
Last Saturday’s exciting draw against Fulham was notable not only for the six shared goals, but the unusual absence of a familiar banner on the terraces – the one proclaiming: “In Arsene We Trust.”
There can be no better day on which to regain a little local faith . . . for either manager and team.
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