Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur: Early Breakdown of the North London Derby
Heading into Saturday's first North London derby of the season, the stakes are about as high as they can get considering it will only be the middle of November.
Games between local rivals always mean a lot, of course, but off the back of both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur's disappointing recent form, a win has the potential to not only lift a fan base but also reignite a season.
Over the next few days, there will be plenty of stories, rumors, discussions and arguments, but for now here is where we stand as we prepare for one of English football's great fixtures.
Time for (New) Heroes
Tottenham supporters might be concerned about their recent lapse in form, but they should not take for granted the relatively heady heights they currently occupy.
It was not altogether long ago they were quite clearly the poorer neighbor of these two rivals, and despite pushing them Arsenal close on several occasions, they could not get that much-desired win.
After a 2-1 victory in November 1999, it would be another eight seasons before Spurs would taste victory over the Gunners, and 10 before they sampled it in league competition.
That coincided with Spurs becoming an altogether more serious proposition in regard to higher league placings, and has undoubtedly served to raise the value of a win in these games.
Arsenal supporters will be less pleased with this turnaround in fortunes, but even with their much-disliked foes narrowing the gap between them in several respects, they have still had the last laugh on more than one occasion.
Back in February they were laughing like hyenas after they came back from two goals down to beat Spurs 5-2 at Ashburton Grove, a result that prompted a catastrophic collapse in form for the away side, which benefited Arsenal.
Much has changed at both clubs since then, with the departure of two Dutchmen of particular pertinence to this game.
Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart were two of the last significant big-bads left from recent years who made a habit of influencing this game much to the ire of the opposite team's fans.
Considering that influence was best measured in goals, there is room for someone new to step up and immediately weave their name on the colorful, lengthy and tradition-rich tapestry of this game.
Recent Form and What Follows
Tottenham currently have 17 points, sitting in seventh place, and Arsenal are a point behind in eighth.
Both clubs had a slow start to their season, followed by substantial improvement in points and performances before seeing that progress unravel somewhat in recent weeks (the Arsenal side of which is examined in detail here by B/R writer Vince Siu).
Arsenal's 3-3 draw with Fulham last time out served to highlight concerns over a defense that, only weeks ago, was looking tight and organised, though Olivier Giroud's double will have been a welcome sight as he works to establish himself as a Premier League striker.
It was definitely a game of two halves for Tottenham in their 2-1 loss at Manchester City.
A solid first-half showing that saw them grab a 1-0 lead was then thrown away in a second period that saw them fail to generate any attacking ideas of note and once again look suspect defensively.
Their respective placings in the middle of the top half are hardly major cause for concern.
However, both will be well aware that a loss in this game will see them lose further ground on the teams above them and will likely exacerbate recent issues in regard to their performances.
A return to European action follows this game before Spurs welcome another London rival, West Ham United, to White Hart Lane, with Arsenal taking on Aston Villa.
It is hardly a new phenomenon for Arsenal supporters to question whether Arsene Wenger's reign at the club has gone on a little too long, when the results have gone against them and the reality of their slide from English royalty hits home.
But both parties will be well aware of the distraction a win over Tottenham can be, even if only for a little while.
These days it brings with it the added bonus of hurting one of their rivals for a top-four place, and Wenger knows that will be just as valuable in the coming months.
Arsenal no longer have as strong a hold on the claim they are the Premier League's best footballing side, and that concerns supporters who wonder what it is Wenger is bringing to the table if they can no longer claim that (though, even that is a poor second to good results).
He is hardly on the hot-seat, and whether he will be at a club where he still retains such profound influence remains to be seen. Nonetheless, a loss could see his backside getting a little toasty.
Andre Villas-Boas will hope one day for the kind of respect, and indeed warmth, with which followers of Arsenal hold Wenger.
But for now he has some work to do as he seeks to establish himself as a top Premier League manager, and with that, his side as one of the division's contenders.
There have been moments where he has looked to have got the hang of it with Tottenham this season, but a struggle to win games they probably should have has left the White Hart Lane faithful unable to assert their complete belief in him just yet.
A win over Arsenal would certainly strengthen their faith a great deal.
There will be plenty going on at both ends of the pitch in this game, but of particular interest will be the battle that takes place in midfield.
Jack Wilshere is likely to return for Arsenal after his one-match suspension, a timely boost as he continues his comeback from long-term injury, and a boost that might give the Gunners a decided advantage in the position.
Tottenham will definitely be without Scott Parker and, most probably, Moussa Dembele as well.
The latter in particular was a significant factor in some of Spurs' best performances this season, and he has been missed during his absence from injury.
While Sandro has maintained his good form in midfield and will provide his team their best chance of getting at Arsenal's engine room, there is only so much he can do. He will need a strong performance from whoever is alongside him to combat the threat posed by the Gunners.
Mikel Arteta did not play well against Fulham but is well capable of pulling the strings, while Santi Cazorla will be expected to drop back from time to time to assist in getting the passing game going.
Though it is unlikely, the game might prove to be as good a time as any to give Tom Carroll his first Premier League start.
While the 20-year-old cannot compensate for the dynamism of a Parker or Dembele, he can bring some much-needed creativity and a keen eye for a pass, along with the kind of mobility that Tom Huddlestone does not possess.
It is a gamble, but sometimes that is what these games are won by.
Elsewhere, look for Olivier Giroud to attempt to follow up his two goals at Fulham with his first in a North London derby, while at the other end, what Villas-Boas decides in regard to how he utilizes Jermain Defoe or Emmanuel Adebayor will be one of the most intriguing pre-match questions for Spurs.
As for those defenses...well, going by the last few weeks, do not be surprised if a mistake or two defines this game.