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Tottenham v Arsenal: why Sunday’s north London derby is one of the biggest in years

It goes without saying that every north London derby means a great deal to fans of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

But Sunday’s clash has far wider implications in what is shaping up to be an intriguing top four battle in the Premier League.

Arsenal, nudged out of the Champions League spot by West Ham‘s midweek win, sit fifth with 35 points. Spurs are breathing down their neck in sixth with 33 points and two games in hand.

So Antonio Conte’s team have the incentive of overtaking their bitter rivals if they take all three points on Sunday afternoon. Arsenal, naturally, will be determined to prevent that at all costs.

We take a look at some of the major talking points ahead of a fascinating contest.

Bukayo Saka was one of the scorers as Arsenal beat Tottenham in September's derby match

Bukayo Saka was one of the scorers as Arsenal beat Tottenham in September’s derby match

Arsenal and Tottenham are fighting it out to make the Champions League next season

Arsenal and Tottenham are fighting it out to make the Champions League next season

Arsenal’s rotten record at the Lane 

Who could forget Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles winning the Premier League at White Hart Lane back in 2004? Yet it hasn’t been such a happy hunting ground in recent times.

In fact, you have to go back to March 2014 to find the Gunners’ last league win at Tottenham, when Tomas Rosicky settled it after only two minutes. Before that, you must go back to September 2007.

Spurs are aiming to beat Arsenal at home for the third consecutive season.

Arsene Wenger's Invincibles side won the Premier League at White Hart Lane back in 2004

Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles side won the Premier League at White Hart Lane back in 2004

Tomas Rosicky scored Arsenal's early winner the last time they won in the league at Spurs

Tomas Rosicky scored Arsenal’s early winner the last time they won in the league at Spurs

Son Heung-min and Harry Kane tore a sorry-looking Arsenal apart in a 2-0 win last season and Toby Alderweireld grabbed a late winner in a 2-1 result in the previous campaign.

Tottenham are unbeaten in their last seven home league games in this fixture, winning five and drawing two. It’s their best run since nine-in-a-row between 1960 and 1968.

If they win on Sunday, it’ll be the first time they’ve won three consecutive home games since August 1961.

But it goes without saying that Mikel Arteta’s team, who finished a lowly eighth last season and missed out on European football, are vastly improved.

Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were on target as they beat Arsenal at home last season

Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were on target as they beat Arsenal at home last season

Who on earth will play in Arsenal’s midfield?

Arsenal really do have a crisis when it comes to injury and illness and Arteta admitted after their battling draw in the Carabao Cup at Liverpool that this game is in doubt.

The Gunners will likely have to fill their bench with academy players and it’s in midfield where the problem is most acute.

Granit Xhaka, sent off for bringing down Diogo Jota as he bore down on goal, will be suspended for the derby but that’s only the start of Arsenal’s issues.

Granit Xhaka was sent off for a clumsy tackle in Arsenal's Carabao Cup clash against Liverpool

Granit Xhaka was sent off for a clumsy tackle in Arsenal’s Carabao Cup clash against Liverpool

After a long ball forward, Xhaka caught Diogo Jota and, having been the last man, was sent off

After a long ball forward, Xhaka caught Diogo Jota and, having been the last man, was sent off

Martin Odegaard has tested positive for Covid and is ruled out, Emile Smith Rowe is out injured, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny are at the Africa Cup of Nations and Ainsley Maitland-Niles is loaned out to Roma.

It leaves Albert Sambi Lokonga as Arsenal’s only available senior midfielder to face Spurs.

Arteta has a number of potential solutions but the centre of his team will unavoidably have a makeshift look.

Defenders Ben White and Calum Chambers do have experience of playing a midfield role and Arteta spoke of White’s versatility after the Liverpool game.

Ben White (right) may have to step forward from defence into midfield for the derby

Ben White (right) may have to step forward from defence into midfield for the derby 

Or he could place further trust in young starlet Charlie Patino, the 18-year-old tipped to be one of the finest players to come through the club’s academy.

Patino scored on his senior debut against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup last month and started last weekend’s FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest alongside Lokonga.

Whether Patino is ready to be thrown into the white heat of a north London derby is another consideration but hopes are high for him and instant hero status could await.

Arsenal have also recalled teenager Miguel Azeez from a loan at Portsmouth as they try and find the numbers to play the game.  

Academy star Charlie Patino may get another opportunity in the biggest game of his career

Academy star Charlie Patino may get another opportunity in the biggest game of his career 

Things are unsettled at Spurs too

If it’s the starting line-up causing a headache at Arsenal, over at Spurs there are concerns Conte’s stay could prove to be a very short one.

Hiring the Italian was a stunning coup back in November and Spurs remain unbeaten in the Premier League under his management.

But they were outclassed by Chelsea over the two legs of their Carabao Cup semi-final and their own lack of strength in depth was exposed by a very unconvincing win over League One Morecambe in the FA Cup last weekend.

Tottenham players fear that manager Antonio Conte will walk away if not backed in the market

Tottenham players fear that manager Antonio Conte will walk away if not backed in the market

Tottenham's laboured FA Cup win over Morecambe laid bare the lack of squad depth

Tottenham’s laboured FA Cup win over Morecambe laid bare the lack of squad depth

Conte has sent a clear message to chairman Daniel Levy that money needs to be spent to strengthen the squad this month and players fear he will walk if that isn’t forthcoming.

Half the window has already passed and the club haven’t signed anyone, with Conte’s volatility causing concern.

Only on an 18-month contract anyway, Conte has shown in the past that he isn’t afraid to quit if he doesn’t get the backing in the market he feels his results warrant.

Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy will decide whether to loosen the purse strings this month

Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy will decide whether to loosen the purse strings this month

Arsenal encouraged by lightning start in September

While circumstances are very different this time around, as we’ve already discussed, Arsenal can follow the blueprint of their impressive 3-1 win over Spurs back on September 26.

That afternoon at the Emirates, they blew their rivals away thanks to first-half goals from Smith Rowe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka.

It was the first clear evidence that this season could be a successful one for Arteta’s side and came not long after they’d propped up the table following a disastrous start.

Arsenal scored three goals before half-time to blow Tottenham away at the Emirates Stadium

Arsenal scored three goals before half-time to blow Tottenham away at the Emirates Stadium

But this win was built on the exuberance of youngsters Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard (20, 21 and 22 respectively) and Spurs, then struggling under Nuno Espirito Santo, had no answer.

Trouble is, Arsenal are missing quite a few of the key performers that day and Spurs are undoubtedly more resolute under Conte, but memories of that game will offer encouragement.

Harry Kane has a good record against Arsenal but has found it tough going this season

Harry Kane has a good record against Arsenal but has found it tough going this season

Hurry up Harry

The two legs of the Chelsea semi-final proved frustrating for the striker but the last month has offered hints that Harry Kane is finally getting back to form.

The disappointment of not getting his big-money move to Manchester City and losing the Euro 2020 final seemed to weigh heavily on the England skipper at the start of the campaign.

But he netted in three consecutive Premier League games – against Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Southampton in December – and also against Morecambe last Sunday.

That took Kane’s goal return for the season to 12 – of which six came in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

By his standards, that’s a distinctly average return but with plenty of football left this season, Kane can still turn things around and ensure Conte’s time at Spurs is a success.

He has a very good record against Arsenal, with 11 goals in 14 league meetings in the past and another on Sunday will be very welcome indeed.

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