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Arsenal, Spurs meet on stable grounds

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Can Arsenal continue its fine form?
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Can Arsenal continue its fine form?
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for FOXSoccer.com. A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.

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WORLD DERBIES

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Arsenal host Tottenham in a dream FA Cup pairing (live, FOX, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET). The tie of the round serves up the league leaders against their archrivals, with one of England’s major trophies at stake. It’s win or go home at the Emirates, in a must-see match on national television.

This will be the 174th North London derby since the two teams first clashed 105 years ago in 1909. But a meeting in the FA Cup is a rarity: the two clubs haven’t met in this competition since a 2-1 Arsenal semifinal win in 2001, in a match staged at Old Trafford, and just five times overall.

Arsenal hold a slight edge in these meetings and have not lost an FA Cup tie to Spurs since 1991, when Tottenham ejected them from the semifinal stage behind a brace from Gary Lineker. Spurs would go on to win the Cup that year; Arsenal found solace in winning the league.

But while most North London derbies are heavy on blood, thunder and goals, this match might be short on firepower. Arsenal and Tottenham are likely to be without their top strikers, and both teams have found it difficult of late to score without them.

Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud missed the Gunners’ midweek win against Cardiff (ankle) and is doubtful to return in time for Saturday’s match. In his stead, the much-maligned Nicklas Bendtner entered off the bench, promptly scoring the winner. Unfortunately, he just as promptly damaged his own ankle in a collision with keeper David Marshall, and he is definitely out for Saturday.

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That leaves Arsenal with just one recognized striker, in Lukas Podolski, and a would-be central striker in Theo Walcott. Also out for Arsenal are Aaron Ramsey (thigh) while Mesut Ozil (shoulder), Kieran Gibbs (calf) and Tomas Rosicky (calf) remain questionable.

Tottenham’s revival under Tim Sherwood continued Wednesday with a smash-and-grab win against Manchester United at Old Trafford behind Emmanuel Adebayor. Since the Togolese international returned from his exile under former manager Andre Villas-Boas, he has been electrifying, finding the net four times in five games.

But he was carried off on a stretcher with twenty minutes to play at United, and it is unclear what ails him. Sherwood himself confessed he was mystified, saying that the striker was so swollen everywhere that doctors were unable to pinpoint the ailment.

That means Adebayor may miss Saturday’s clash, and if he does, an already thin Spurs side will have to rely on Roberto Soldado and Jermain Defoe, neither of whom have impressed. Soldado is becoming as famous for missing gilt-edged chances as he is for converting penalties: at United, he had a chance to seal the game with a flick on from a yard out, and promptly flubbed his lines. Soldado would arguably be the biggest disappointment of Spurs’ transfer window had they not also signed Erik Lamela, who is so little-used it’s hard to tell if he possesses any quality at all.

Defoe, in contrast, has scored seven goals from open play, but not against top-flight opposition in England since Spurs’ 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa in the League Cup back in September. And Defoe, apparently, has one foot out the door with a long-rumored move to Major League Soccer on the cards.

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Also out for Spurs is midfielder Paulinho, who injured ankle ligaments at the boots of Stoke City’s Charlie Adam on Dec. 29. (Adam, who been involved in three previous bad tangles with Spurs players, and was called a “coward” by Gareth Bale in 2012, was subsequently forced to deny he had a personal issue with Tottenham or its players.)

No matter how thin their ranks, Arsenal enter the match as the favorites. After an opening-day wobble, the Gunners have settled down into a steady rhythm and have displayed far more steel and character than their legion of detractors had thought possible. Tellingly, they have not shaken those critics: many yet remain unconvinced by Arsenal’s perch atop the table. And despite some fumbles -- a bad loss at Manchester City, a nervous night in Italy and an ejection from the League Cup at the hands of Chelsea in a battle of B-teams -- the Gunners have consistently managed to pick themselves up and get back to winning.

Spurs, in fact, have managed to beast Arsenal just once at the Emirates or Highbury in the past 21 years. This past September, in their most recent meeting, the Gunners brushed them aside in a compelling game that Giroud decided for good in the 23rd minute.

But things are looking up for Tottenham after a season that seemed utterly lost. The gamble on the untested Sherwood is working for now, and Spurs are eager to show that they are more than pretenders to the throne. A win here would go a long way towards dispelling that image.

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