This week’s Wednesday evening kickoffs in the Premier League had both of North London’s finest in action against weaker, yet plucky sides. Spurs’ opponent Crystal Palace had recently scalped both Chelsea and Liverpool to earn what is almost assuredly enough points to stay in the top flight. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s adversary was a resurgent Leicester City who have started to look more like the team of last season in recent weeks. It was no surprise then that both Spurs and Arsenal were made to labor for their victories, though the manner in which each achieved a winning result was telling.
For 75-odd minutes away at Palace, Spurs looked like they were going to leave disappointed despite a pretty dominant performance. They created more shots, had much more of the possession, and limited their hosts to a handful of real attacking chances. Yet for all their bluster, the breakthrough wasn’t coming; that is until the ball found Christian Eriksen in a central position about 25 yards from goal. The Dane hit a dipping strike past Eagles’ goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, locking up all 3 points for the visitors and assuring they didn’t lose any ground on title-favorites Chelsea, who had blown Southampton away the night before.
Like Spurs, Arsenal struggled to put their opponents away at the Emirates, and needed to rely on a bit of luck to keep their ever-shrinking Champions League qualification hopes alive. It took an own-goal to sink a Leicester side that refused to yield for 86 minutes away from home, a worrying indictment of Arsenal’s attacking threat heading into a weekend North London Derby where they’ll face the meanest defense in the league. Spurs’ back line has been breached a mere 22 times this season, and it’s hard to see this Arsenal attack finding a way through barring a moment of magic from Sanchez or Ozil.
Which brings us to Sunday’s NLD, an already huge match made even more important by each side’s respective fortunes in the league. Spurs are still hot on the heels of Chelsea, but need help if they’re going to catch the league leaders. Such help could arrive in the form of Everton and league top-scorer Romelu Lukaku early Sunday morning, and you can bet that any hint of a Chelsea slip-up will hyper-motivate this Spurs side to handle their business with the Gunners. Arsenal, on the other hand, are entering last-chance saloon territory with their league position, and missing out on top 4 for the first time in Wenger’s tenure is a very real, and frightening possibility for them. That a loss on Sunday would almost certainly doom them to finishing below Spurs—an event both sets of fans certainly care about even if the teams themselves don’t—only adds to the heightened sense of urgency the visitors will be feeling when they step out onto the pitch at White Hart Lane.
NLDs are ordinarily notoriously difficult to call, which makes this one particularly strange for me. In all honesty, and removing my considerable Spurs bias, I just can’t see Arsenal running out of the Lane with all 3 points. I can see them nicking a draw, maybe, but I’m very pleased to admit that I firmly believe this Spurs side is currently a cut above their North London neighbors. Outside of Ozil and Sanchez, Arsenal have very few difference makers up front. Spurs’ defense made an in-form Zaha and Benteke look like Sunday league players on Wednesday, so I just can’t see them being too troubled by Arsenal’s dynamic duo.
Beyond the players’ skills, however, is also a mentality issue. Every time Spurs take the pitch, they believe they can win. In last weekend’s 4-2 F.A. Cup loss to Chelsea, they came from behind twice against the league’s best team to pull themselves back into the game. Both goals are brilliant (as was the case with pretty much every goal either team scored in that game), and proved that no matter who the opponent is, this Spurs team doesn’t believe they’re down and out until the final whistle. Even if Arsenal were to score first, there’s no part of me that doubts Spurs’ ability to mount a comeback and seize the momentum back. Manager Pochettino deserves a lot of the credit for instilling this winning mentality, as the club was known for quite the opposite prior to his arrival. With the result against Palace, he’s also guided the club to it’s highest ever Premier League point total, an achievement in itself no matter where they wind up come the end of the campaign.
Arsenal, though, have shown signs of mental weakness in the league over the last month or so. They’ve lost games to teams they had no right losing to, and when the chips are down their mentality has been proven fragile time and again. If Spurs manage to score early on Sunday, or go up by more than a goal at any point, I expect the Gunners to crumble. You can see how it’ll play out by watching some of their previous matches; Sanchez will start to get an attitude, Ozil will disappear from the game, the midfield will become completely lost. Trust me, I’m practically conditioned to fear any Arsenal team based on past history as a Spurs fan, but this is by far the weakest I’ve seen them in a long, long time. They are there for the taking on Sunday, and I expect Spurs to bury them the second they display any sort of frailty.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but my prediction for Sunday is a comfortable Spurs win—say 2-0 or 3-1. We’re simply in too good of form at the moment for this Gunners team, and they are likely to wilt the second the game turns against them. Factor in Kane’s absurd scoring record in London derbies, and you’ve got the recipe for a confidence-boosting home win if I’ve ever seen one.