London – An incendiary mix of bitter local rivalry and two teams searching for consistency amid fan disquiet see Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur throw themselves into the bearpit of a North London derby at the Emirates on Saturday (2.45pm).
Always a high-octane affair, the lunchtime Premier League clash promises goals, drama and bragging rights but the only thing concerning opposing managers Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas, however, is securing three points.
For clubs with annual top-four and Champions League ambitions, neither is where they want to be after 11 games.
Spurs, in their first season under former Chelsea manager Villas-Boas, are in seventh, one point and one place above Wenger's men. The two teams are already 10 and 11 points behind leaders Manchester United respectively.
Arsenal blew a two-goal lead at home to Fulham last weekend, forced to settle for a 3-3 draw after Mikel Arteta's penalty was saved in the fifth minute of added time.
It was the second successive game that Arsenal had failed to win from two goals to the good after surrendering the lead at Schalke 04 in the Champions League.
Wenger said his fragile side needed to defend with “more drive and belief” and, according to the Daily Mail, is considering ditching his trusted 4-3-2-1 formation and playing with five defenders to tighten up Arsenal's leaky defence.
Spurs have lost their last two league games at home to Wigan Athletic when they were booed off at White Hart Lane – a defeat described by Villas-Boas as their worst performance of the season – and last weekend at Manchester City.
Villas-Boas has a string of injuries to contend with. Right back Kyle Walker, striker Jermain Defoe and winger Aaron Lennon are being assessed after picking up hamstring problems against City, although Spurs are hopeful they will feature.
Midfielder Mousa Dembele has not played since October 7 because of a hip injury and is struggling to be fit, while Younes Kaboul, Scott Parker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto remain sidelined.
Arsenal walloped their rivals 5-2 in an extraordinary clash at the Emirates in February, scoring five unanswered goals after Spurs led 2-0 after 34 minutes.
The season before that, it was Arsenal who led 2-0 after half an hour, only for Spurs to storm back after the break to win 3-2.
Wenger and Villas-Boas, along with every other Premier League manager, will be crossing fingers and toes that players do not return injured from midweek international duty.
Concerns have long been voiced about the scheduling of international friendlies and the club versus country conflict argument.
“When we play this Saturday against Tottenham and Santi Cazorla plays (for Spain) in Panama on Wednesday, you cannot say there is no conflict of interest,” Wenger told The Sun newspaper.
“What is difficult to understand is why these games are not like the official games and on a Tuesday?”
Across the capital, an early season relegation “six-pointer” takes place in west London at Loftus Road where winless and rock-bottom Queens Park Rangers host Southampton, just one point and one place above them.
Rangers manager Mark Hughes has been rigidly backed by club owner Tony Fernandes but admitted after last weekend's defeat at Stoke that he had to deliver fast.
“I have confidence in the players to turn this round, but it needs to happen next week,” Welshman Hughes said in the wake of the Stoke defeat.
In the title race, leaders Manchester United visit lowly Norwich City on Saturday (7.30pm), second-placed Manchester City host Aston Villa (5pm) and Chelsea, in third, are at West Bromwich Albion (5pm). – Reuters