• FA Cup

Arsenal & Tottenham must get priorities straight for FA Cup clash

John Brewin
January 3, 2014
Olivier Giroud scored the winner the last time the two sides met © Getty Images

On the last possible New Year's Day return train to London, a group of Tottenham Hotspur fans were cracking bottles of champagne to celebrate victory over Manchester United but their thoughts had already turned to Saturday. "Bring on the Arsenal," could be heard ringing down the carriages.

Chat to more sober supporters of either Arsenal or Tottenham and they might tell you that the FA Cup draw they least desired was their North London rival. Especially now, too. Both clubs entered 2014 riding high. New Year's Day brought further optimism but Saturday's third round tie could burst their bubbles, and perhaps even at the same time. Those who bemoan the fading romance of the FA Cup should look away now: neither will want a replay. At both clubs, resources have been stretched by the rigours of the festive season's gruelling fixture list.

Key FA Cup ties

Ben Watson and Roberto Martinez hold the FA Cup © Getty Images
  • Blackburn v Man City
  • Everton v QPR
  • Newcastle v Cardiff
  • Wigan v MK Dons
  • Derby v Chelsea
  • Liverpool v Oldham
  • Man Utd v Swansea

Even while failing to wipe a broad grin from his face after Wednesday's 2-1 victory at Manchester United, Spurs boss Tim Sherwood was bemoaning an injury crisis. "Every game we're picking a few more injuries up," he told the news conference. "None of our injured players are really close to a return."

Sherwood, though, has an unshakeable positivity. "It's a great opportunity for some of the young boys to come into the squad now," he said. "We're going at it with a team of 16 players, they've had to play every game. We have nine out injured, first-team players who would get in the team, but the boys are going at it with a very small squad."

Emmanuel Adebayor has become Tottenham's key man, but left the Old Trafford field with cramp so serious that, according to his manager, the Togolese had "ice on every part of his body so we can't tell what is wrong with him."

The last time Adebayor played at Emirates Stadium for Tottenham, he scored early, and dominated Arsenal's defence before disgracing himself with a lunge on Santi Cazorla that led to a straight red card. That all happened within 17 minutes, and Spurs fell apart at precisely that juncture. Were he not such a brazen sort, Sherwood might beware of fielding Adebayor against his former club. After his first game against them for Manchester City, he was retrospectively banned for three matches for a kick into Robin van Persie's face and had further two matches suspended for an over-zealous celebration in front of Arsenal fans.

If it were not Adebayor and Spurs, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger might empathise. His own rebel prince has an injury. Following the doomsday scenario of an Olivier Giroud fitness blow, Nicklas Bendtner's suffered a sprained ankle when scoring against Cardiff.

"I am very sad for us, but for him as well," said Wenger on Wednesday. Few could have predicted that being a popular sentiment just a few months back.

That leaves Lukas Podolski, back after four months out, and nursing his way back from a serious muscle problem. Theo Walcott is likely to find himself in the central role he usually enjoys, and from which, a year ago, he won a lucrative new contract. At least Giroud's own ankle problem is not too serious, but he will not be risked on Saturday. The same may go for Mesut Ozil as the German recovers from a shoulder injury.

The main reason for such caution is Arsenal's hair's breadth leadership of the Premier League. Such status comes against most preseason expectations. Most supporters would have entered the season hoping that an eight-year trophy drought could end; the FA Cup would have been seen as a prime target. The League Cup is already long gone, and further Champions League adventures rest on a daunting last 16 tie with Bayern Munich.

Just let them have their head and go out there and enjoy themselves

Christmas saw the Gunners rather grind through the gears, though 10 points from 12 is a fine return from the four matches that followed their 6-3 humbling at Manchester City. There is a definite resilience to Arsenal, and they have picked up the happy habit of beating lesser opposition, while still struggling with the Premier League's elite teams. Only Liverpool, with the performance of the season so far, and Spurs, of their expected rivals have been beaten.

Does Wenger prioritise the Premier League, or take another opportunity to restate his team's continuing superiority over their local rivals? Spurs have not beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup since 1991, a Wembley semifinal made famous by a Paul Gascoigne rocket free kick and his maniacal post-match interview.

The clubs' only previous FA Cup meeting during the Wenger era was an Old Trafford semi-final in 2001, where Arsenal swept back from an early Gary Doherty effort to deservedly win through Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires goals.

Only one Tottenham manager of the nine permanent appointments the Frenchman has faced has ever managed to beat Wenger at Arsenal's home, be it Emirates Stadium or Highbury, Sherwood's predecessor-but-one, and mentor, Harry Redknapp.

"Just let them have their head and go out there and enjoy themselves," said Sherwood at Old Trafford, explaining his football philosophy as if he were Redknapp himself. "We've all played in the street and sometimes you need to take it back to that. I think football is sometimes too regimented."

Redknapp's first game in charge of Tottenham came at Emirates Stadium in October 2008, a match recalled as the best of a heady bunch of Premier League North London derbies. It ended 4-4, after two injury-time goals from Jermaine Jenas and Aaron Lennon pulled Spurs back in sensational style. Adebayor had been among Arsenal's scorers that night.

Sherwood, the unabashed tactical naif, can only be expected to go for broke, in the finest traditions of both his club and the competition. Determined to prove he is the right choice, he refuses to hide his self-confidence. Spurs' players have responded, with three wins from his four league matches in charge reviving the club's season. Bring on the Arsenal indeed.

Download ESPN's new UK sport app, a fresh and powerful new way to follow your favourite UK sports news, scores and video.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd