Arsene Wenger has warned his Arsenal stars to keep their cool when they face bitter rivals Tottenham as the heated north London derby returns to Wembley for the first time in 25 years. Languishing in sixth place in the Premier League, Wenger’s side are however just four points behind fifth placed Tottenham.
With their hopes of a top four place and qualification for the Champions League hanging in the balance, the Gunners can ill-afford a damaging defeat at the hands of their hated neighbours today, while Tottenham are also a point adrift of the top four and desperate to avoid defeat.
Given the high stakes amid the fight for local bragging rights, the crowd of over 80,000 are certain to make it a frenzied occasion. Wenger knows players can lose their composure if they get swept up by the derby atmosphere.
And, with new boys Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan making their maiden north London derby appearances and Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli in the midst of a diving storm, the Arsenal manager cautioned his players to stay focused. “There is always huge passion before the game and the emotion at stake that becomes a bit more agitated,” he said. “It is always a game that is charged emotionally. For us, it is an opportunity to come back closer to the Champions League places, which is a priority.”
Although Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium in November, they haven’t won an away league game against their rivals since 2014. Fortunately, for Wenger’s men, with Tottenham playing their home games at Wembley this season while White Hart Lane is rebuilt, it will be the first north London derby at the national stadium since 1993.
Arsenal won 1-0 on that occasion in the FA Cup semi-finals, avenging a 3-1 loss to Tottenham at the same stage of that competition two years earlier. Wembley is a happy hunting ground for Arsenal’s current generation as well. They have won their last nine games at the national stadium, including a penalty shoot-out victory over Chelsea in this season’s Community Shield.
Asked if he preferred the game to be at Wembley, Wenger said: “Yes, because we have a positive history there. Of course Wembley is a pitch that is quality, a stadium with a big crowd and it is always a special day in your mind so overall, yes. At Wembley you play special games where you are under pressure to perform and we responded well to it every time.”
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech is a doubt having been forced off with a calf injury in the win over Everton last week. Tottenham are unbeaten in their last eight league games, and boss Mauricio Pochettino has not given up hope of pipping Manchester United to second place.
Defeating Arsenal would help that ambition, while carrying the added bonus of derailing Arsenal. “I believe we can finish second. Of course we’re going to fight for that to happen,” Pochettino said. “The gap is not massive but it will be tough. It’s key on Saturday to win the game, to be in the race for the top four.”
Pochettino believes former Paris Saint Germain winger Lucas Moura, who arrived last month, is ready to make his debut, possibly as a substitute. “I think he will be ready to be in contention for Saturday,” Pochettino said. “He is starting to feel the legs.We need to assess him, but after the last session I hope we can put him in contention.”
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Today: Tottenham Hotspur v arsenal (1230 GMT), Everton v Crystal Palace, Stoke v Brighton, Swansea v Burnley, West Ham v Watford, Manchester City v Leicester City (1730 GMT)
Tomorrow: Huddersfield Town v Bournemouth (1200 GMT), Newcastle United v Manchester United (1415 GMT), Southampton v Liverpool (1630 GMT)
On Monday: Chelsea v West Brom (2000 GMT)
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