When the draw for the third round of the League Cup was made, the stand-out tie was the north London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal. Meetings between these arch-rivals are always eagerly anticipated, never less than keenly contested, and often intense to the point of bitterness. The issue of local pride inevitably overlays each encounter, but the two managers concerned are inevitably more focused on the bigger picture than on parochial superiority complexes.
And in the bigger picture, Spurs under Harry Redknapp – with their top-four Premier League finish last season and Champions League debut this – now pose a more credible threat to the hegemony of the traditional ‘Big Four’, of whom Arsenal are founder members, than they have done for years.
Indeed, the last north London derby, in April, was significant for marking the first time in 21 consecutive league meetings between them that Spurs had managed to beat the Gunners. Redknapp will be anxious to build on that by inflicting a second successive defeat on Arsene Wenger’s side – this time in the League Cup - not least because of the psychological boost it would give his players for forthcoming domestic and European league challenges.
The same applies to Arsenal, of course; but precisely because this is a League Cup clash, different factors may influence the outcome.
Different Line-Ups, Same Fierce Rivalry
Wenger has made a virtue of his policy of giving youngsters and fringe players opportunities in this competition. Results – three quarter-finals, three semi-finals and one final in the last seven seasons – suggest that the policy is effective, but they have failed to lift the trophy since 1993 and their eventual defeats have invariably come against opponents whose managers have picked more or less full-strength sides.
It’s therefore a risk strategy, and some would argue it has contributed significantly to Arsenal’s failure to collect any silverware since 2005. After all, there’s nothing like winning medals to help a team mature and become battle-hardened. Nevertheless, Wenger indicated when the draw was made that he would adhere to his selection policy, so the question is, will that give Spurs the advantage? To some extent that will depend on how many changes Redknapp is also prepared to make.
Both sides had testing weekends. Spurs trailed at home to Wolves until 15 minutes from time, then scored three times through Rafael van der Vaart (a penalty), Roman Pavlyuchenko and Alan Hutton to win 3-1. Arsenal took a fortuitous lead at Sunderland through captain Cesc Fabregas, but soon lost him to injury before going down to 10 men with the dismissal of Alex Song, squandering a chance to double their lead by missing a penalty, then conceding a 95th minute equaliser when ex-Spur Darren Bent netted with a mere few seconds remaining.
Tottenham’s will therefore be much the happier camp going into the tie; and Spurs also have the better record in this competition, having won it four times and been runners-up on three occasions. Arsenal have won it twice and lost four other finals.
But the Gunners boast a good League Cup record against their rivals: of 11 previous matches between the clubs in this competition, Arsenal have won five, Spurs have won three and three have been drawn.
That squad will be utilised on Tuesday night as the Spurs boss has admitted he will be making changes to his side.
"We've got to be sensible," he told BBC Sport, “I've got a whole team of players who need to play football.” He added: “There's [Brazilian midfielder] Sandro, for example, who has just joined us and I'm looking forward to giving him his debut."
Ledley King and/or William Gallas may well be rested, along with Van der Vaart, who despite carrying a calf knock got three games under his belt in a week after not having played since the World Cup.
Younes Kaboul damaged a hamstring against Wolves and will almost certainly be ruled out, along with Heurelho Gomes, Michael Dawson, Jermain Defoe, Luka Modric, Jonathan Woodgate who are all recovering from injuries.
Redknapp’s rotation means the likes of David Bentley, Aaron Lennon, Wilson Palacios, Giovanni dos Santos, Niko Kranjcar, Sebastien Bassong and Stipe Pletikosa could be in contention.
Possible Starting XI: Cudicini; Hutton, Bassong, Gallas, Assou-Ekotto; Bentley, Palacios, Sandro, Kranjcar; Keane, Pavlyuchenko.
Wenger will no doubt use the opportunity to give starts to players who have not featured too much to date in the Premier League this season.
His options anyway are restricted by the suspension of Alex Song and injuries to Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen, Abou Diaby, Aaron Ramsey and Nicklas Bendtner.
Striker Marouane Chamakh has said that while he knows the manager usually picks younger players for League Cup ties, he is ready to play and would relish being involved in a derby match.
It is largely guesswork predicting who will start, but Wenger regards the competition as Arsenal’s fourth priority out of four, so extensive rotation is inevitable with a Premier League game against West Bromwich Albion on the horizon.
Possible Starting XI: Fabianski; Hoyte, Djourou, Squillaci, Gibbs; Eboue, Eastmond, Wilshere, Lansbury; Emmanuel-Thomas, Vela.