By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
The first Barclays Premier League blockbuster of the season turned out to be the dampest of damp squibs as Manchester United and Chelsea played out a soul-less, goal-less and virtually entertainment-free stalemate at Old Trafford. A tactical masterclass it may have been, but there was little to raise the pulse. A misplaced pen has often been a talking point in big matches, on this occasion it was Jose Mourinho’s lost pen that provided some welcome light relief.
On Sunday, Arsenal meet Tottenham and the previous seven league games between the North London rivals have produced 34 goals, the last two at the Emirates ending 5-2 to the home team. “And Spurs went ahead in both of those games,” said self-confessed Arsenal supporter Matt Scott who covered his share of derbies for the Guardian.
The closure of the transfer window the following day will inevitably dominate much of the build-up to the game, with the Gareth Bale saga finally coming to a cliffhanger conclusion (a Spanish newspaper this week claimed the Balegate had been rumbling on for 87 days – and rising) while Gooners are hoping for a happier ending than in 2011 when, with the clock ticking, Arsenal signed Park Chu-Young and Andre Santos along with Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta.
Meetings between the clubs hardly need any extra spice, but the temperature was raised – and some – for the first derby of 2001/02 after Arsenal had signed Spurs captain Sol Campbell on a free transfer. “There has been an added edge to all the matches since then,” said Scott who writes a regular column for Inside World Football (www.insideworldfootball.com). “The first meeting post-Campbell [at White Hart Lane] had a Welcome To Hell Galatasaray-style atmosphere.
“This time I expect some Arsenal fans will wind up Spurs supporters about how Arsenal are likely to be the ones to fund the Bale transfer if players such as Mesut Ozil, Angel di Maria or even Karim Benzema move [from Real Madrid] to the Emirates. Who would have paid the £80 million then?”
Tongue out of cheek, Scott believes Spurs will find it difficult going on impossible to replace “their superstar, iconic, talismanic flyer who was pretty well at the heart of everything they did last season.”
Spurs have certainly been more prolific than Arsenal in the summer – like just about every club – with Paulinho (Corinthians £17m), Nacer Chadli (FC Twente £7m), Roberto Soldado (Valencia £26m), Etienne Capoue (Toulouse £9m) and Erik Lamela (Roma £25m) arriving at White Hart Lane. Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen and Steaua Bucharest defender Vlad Chiriches are on the verge of making it what Spurs hope will be a magnificent seven to join the club this summer.
“Whether Spurs will be prolific in front of goal, I doubt,” said Scott, though Lamela, who scored 15 goals in 33 Serie A games last season, comes with a promising cv. “There is a real challenge for clubs that lose players like Bale who are capable of producing something out of nothing. Arsenal have lived through this. When they lost Thierry Henry [to Barcelona in 2007] they turned to Emmanuel Adebayor [who scored 30 goals in 2007/08 and 16 the following season]. He had played with Henry and Arsene Wenger had someone capable of taking over that mantle, so they were able to absorb the loss of Henry from within.
“When Adebayor left for Manchester City, starting the exodus of Arsenal players to the north-west, Robin van Persie stepped up [with 69 goals between 2009 and 2012]. I think it’s difficult for any team like Spurs, who have struggled with strikers for the past two seasons. You aren’t going to get 30 goals out of Jermain Defoe whose chance-conversion ratio is poor. Adebeyor has been off the boil in English football since he left Arsenal and with the possible exception of Lamela who has yet to prove himself in English football, and Soldado, Spurs don’t have it within their squad to replace Bale’s goals.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they have not scored from open play in the Barclays Premier League yet, winning both games 1-0 with Soldado penalties. They have had problems scoring, which they never did with Bale because they knew he would create a goal in every other game, at least, from nothing.
“I’d be very surprised if there were seven or even five goals in Sunday’s match. I think it will be a cagey game, mainly because Arsenal are lacking so many players through injury and have offloaded Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho and Andrei Arshavin. Aaron Ramsey and Lukas Podolski won’t play, there’s a doubt about Jack Wilshere. Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are out for a while. In defence Thomas Vermaelen is injured and Laurent Koscielny is suspended. They will have a patched up team and if the squad wasn’t thin already, it certainly is now.
“Arsenal’s best form of defence has been attack and I suspect they will hold the ball, playing possession football, happy to pass it around 20 yards from goal and will only really push on when they see a clear opportunity, which won’t happen very often.
“They have exposed themselves too much by over-committing and even with Gordon Banks in goal plus Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore as central defenders, if you don’t get players back you’ll concede goals. Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and whoever else is around them will pass the ball across the field all day long with no true penetration.
“In the same way that United and Chelsea were happy to play the game out as they did, I can see this being low scoring, too. If Spurs score early it would take the shackles off Arsenal, but if the score is 0-0 at half-time it will probably stay that way.”