When Tottenham meet Arsenal, what are the key questions to answer?
Sixth host fifth in the Premier League on Saturday when north London rivals Tottenham entertain Arsenal. Nick Miller looks at five key questions ahead of the White Hart Lane showdown.
Will the absence of Alexis Sanchez be a major factor?
In truth, the news that Alexis Sanchez would be ruled out of this weekend's north London derby was not exactly a galloping shock. The Chilean was, by Arsene Wenger's own admission, in the "red zone" for injury back in December, after which he made 10 appearances in six weeks, working out at roughly a game every four days.
"Alexis is not ready," Wenger said on Thursday. "He is not far away, the Leicester game [on Tuesday] is a possibility. He is of course very difficult to keep quiet! He is training but it's light training."
This, of course, is not ideal for Wenger, but the good news for Arsenal is that this is not nearly as much of a setback as it might have been earlier in the season, when Sanchez sometimes looked like he was ploughing a lone furrow at the Emirates.
Since then, Santi Cazorla has come into perhaps the best form of his Arsenal career, Tomas Rosicky has confirmed what Arsenal fans have been saying about him for years with some delightful performances, while Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil have both returned from injury.
Indeed, the question for Wenger now is perhaps more about how he will fit his myriad attacking options into the team, rather than how Arsenal will manage without their primary attacking threat.
Last weekend's defeat of Aston Villa should be viewed with the caveat that the standard of opposition was frankly lamentable, but making short work of bad teams has been one of Arsenal's problems in the past, so the 5-0 victory should not be ignored.
That was, of course, a victory secured without Sanchez, so Wenger will take his team to White Hart Lane safe in the knowledge that they can perform without their talisman.
Will Tottenham be able to repeat their destruction of Chelsea?
In his Premier League Spotlight, James Dall wonders whether Arsenal's victory at Manchester City was by design or chance, but that could equally be applied to the hosts on Saturday as well.
Tottenham's remarkable 5-3 demolition of Chelsea on New Year's Day was perhaps the most extraordinary league result of the season so far, and one that few saw coming. Spurs were rampant that day, but their next Premier League encounter saw them surrender a lead to Crystal Palace and slump to a disappointing and rather limp defeat.
Indeed, in the intervening weeks they have been a touch inconsistent. They lost in the FA Cup to Leicester, just about squeezed past Sheffield United in the Capital One Cup semifinal and relied on a late intervention from Christian Eriksen to claim three points against Sunderland in the league. Last week's win at West Brom was their most comfortable display for a while.
On that basis, one would perhaps not place too much faith in them even beating an in-form Arsenal, never mind putting them to the sword as they did Chelsea, but this is a Spurs team that seems to be growing under Mauricio Pochettino, and the hammering of Jose Mourinho's league leaders shows they do have a big performance in them.
Ultimately their aim is to get back into the top four and possibly go for higher from there, and if they were to dispense a similar thrashing to a Champions League team then their challenge to the big boys might look a little more plausible.
How will Arsenal cope with Harry Kane?
The success of Tottenham's leading marksman this season has been both remarkable and hugely enjoyable, particularly since it has come as something of a surprise. Before establishing himself in the team this season, Kane looked like a game but not particularly special forward, and one who didn't pull up any particular trees in a collection of loan spells at assorted Championship clubs in previous seasons.
One of the reasons for that is that Kane doesn't have one single identifying and outstanding quality -- he doesn't have lightning pace, he doesn't have an especially ferocious shot and he isn't a colossus in the air, all of which makes it easy to underrate him.
PREMIER LEAGUE LATEST
- Delaney: Key men in the north London derby
- Miller: Five Tottenham vs. Arsenal questions
- Cox: Everton and Liverpool seek past glories
- Carlisle: Gerrard ready for last Merseyside derby
- Macintosh: Man Utd must perform as well as win
- Fantasy focus: January's team of the month
- Weekend Premier League team news
That also perhaps provides one of the reasons for his success, because it makes it difficult to come up with a defensive plan against him. If a defender knows a forward is very quick then he can make provisions for that, or if he is a fine header of the ball a manager can work on preventing crosses into the box, but what plans could you put in place to combat Kane?
The striker scores all kinds of goals, and if he's afforded a yard or two of space then he is likely to hurt you, but it's impossible to keep close enough tabs on a player like that for the full 90 minutes, so it will be interesting to see how Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker deal with the threat of the man who already has 20 goals to his name in all competitions this season.
Christian Eriksen vs. Francis Coquelin: Who will prevail?
One of the pleasant surprises for Arsenal in recent weeks has been the form of Francis Coquelin, who was pulled from the loan scrap heap as emergency cover only to prove one of the Gunners' most reliable and tenacious performers in recent weeks.
His role will be crucial on Saturday, as one of his primary tasks will be to keep quiet Christian Eriksen, Tottenham's string-puller in chief. The Dane has been quite excellent for much of the season, playing in the advanced midfield role behind Kane, creating chances aplenty and putting away a fair few of them himself, with crucial late goals against Sunderland, Leicester, Swansea and Sheffield United among the 11 goals he has netted this season.
Again, it's the use of space that is perhaps most impressive about Eriksen, who seems to have the knack that fine playmakers do of carving out a vital yard here or there to slip a pass or take a shot, and it will be Coquelin's job to prevent him from doing that as much as possible.
It was a role the Frenchman performed superbly in Arsenal's win over Manchester City, helping to stymie David Silva to such an extent that one of the most gifted creative talents in the Premier League, nay the world, was reduced to an irrelevant bystander as Arsenal ran out winners.
If they are to repeat that at White Hart Lane, the question of whether Coquelin can muzzle Eriksen will be one of the keys for Arsene Wenger's men.
Will Nabil Bentaleb's return be crucial?
Equally, the man at the base of Tottenham's midfield will have a pretty big job on his hands. Whoever plays in the No. 10 role, be it Cazorla or Rosicky or Ozil, Arsenal will carry a strong threat in attacking midfield, with most of their play directed through that position.
In all probability it will be Cazorla playing the attacking role with limited defensive responsibilities, which will Arsenal's formation more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1, the shape that proved so successful against Manchester City.
The good news for Pochettino is that he will have Nabil Bentaleb back from Africa Cup of Nations duty to help police that area, and while the Algerian is not a spoiler in the same way Coquelin is, he is by a reasonable distance the best option Spurs have in that position, given that the alternatives include Paulinho, who is perhaps lucky to even still be at the club given some of his performances in a white shirt. Bentaleb is not exactly Roy Keane, but his return should be a significant boost to Tottenham's chances.
As an aside, it was heartening to hear Bentaleb's words about Tottenham's Capital One Cup semifinal victory, achieved in his absence. "I wanted to cry when we went 2-1 down," said Bentaleb after Algeria were knocked out. "The game wasn't on TV, so I followed it on my phone. I saw it was 1-0 and I thought 'OK, we've got this' but then at 2-1 down, I wanted to cry, seriously.
"I was like a kid looking at the phone and then it came up 'goal' but when my phone is locked, it just comes up as an alert across the top. I couldn't see who had scored! My heart was beating but I pressed it and it was us!"
That sort of genuine enthusiasm is all too rare in a professional footballer, and extremely endearing.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.