Musing on a London derby weekend in the Premier League
Background image: Colin, CC BY-SA 4.0
Eight million people, six top-flight football clubs, four Champions League places. London is a crowded city in every sense of the word. This weekend, a quartet from its half-dozen Premier League football clubs meet, two on Saturday, the other pair on Sunday. Three of the sides chase European football. The fourth dream only of a wholly unlikely relegation escape.
Tottenham host Arsenal in the campaign's second North London Derby. Within 24 hours, Chelsea's mostly old men go West to Craven Cottage. The tectonic plates on which London football grounds sit may shift according to the results. Two historic London derbies within the same weekend. Champions League dreams and Premier League survival the stakes. Will the ground shake?
The Spurs and Gunners kick off 30 minutes past noon at Wem-buh-ly. What better place to contest a North London derby? Arsenal fans might prefer the Emirates. Tottenham faithful would love to move into their new White Hart Lane digs. Hackney Marshes would do for either side if it guaranteed three points.
With ten games remaining in their respective campaigns and the combatants separated by four points in third and fourth, this could be the biggest NLD in recent memory. It’s certainly in contention.
The hosts come in on the back foot. Spurs lost to London opposition midweek, looking at sixes and sevens against Chelsea. In addition, Mauricio Pochettino's squad inhabit an insidious no-man's-land, not within striking distance of Liverpool and Manchester City, free for the moment from any danger of dropping down in the table. Before the setback against the Blues, they suffered defeat at Turf Moor to Burnley. Perhaps a nice Claret, Clarisse? Thip-thip-thip-thip-thip.
House calls from Hannibal Lecter aside, Tottenham rides a three-game win streak in their temporary home. This one won't be easy for the Gunners.
Unai Emery accepted the Arsenal job with a clear mandate. Return the club to their regular Champions League service. Both paths to that goal remain open. The Spaniard must deal with Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais and his former Paris Saint-Germain benchwarmer Hatem ben Arfa in the Europa League Round of 16 else he will be down to one option: hang onto fourth place despite Chelsea and Manchester United nipping at his heels like dire wolves.
The pressure mounted when inconsistency became the word following a 22-game unbeaten streak. Three wins on the Premier League trot and Mesut Ozil's reappearance in the lineup have Arsenal climbing again, however.
A win for Tottenham allows them to look up the table again. Defeat for Arsenal means one Champions League place to be fought over by three desperate clubs.
In West London, further intrigue enters the mix.
Hosts Fulham can find no time for delusions of grandeur. Their Premier League lives are on the clock and there isn't much time for Scott Parker, the third manager in their woeful campaign, to stage a rescue. Ten points from safety with as many games to go, Fulham need to start winning now. What's more, they can't stop.
What better way to begin the miracle than against the enemy of their enemy? The West London matrix is as confusing as the one in the West Midlands. Fulham hates QPR, QPR hates Fulham. Both hate Chelsea equally but not enough to become friends. In the foreign investment era, Chelsea fans care less about these derbies, moving their disdain into fancier digs neighbouring Arsenal and Tottenham.
Ryan Babel's arrival boosted the Cottagers but the club remains unable to string together a decent run of form. It’s just four wins for them all season, one in their last nine games. The other eight all ended in defeat. In that sequence, Fulham scored nine but conceded 22. Their decrepitude cost Claudio Ranieri his job. Can this be a good decision? The last time Fulham management axed a short-serving manager was when Rene Meulensteen (the dead ringer for Vic Reeves) came in for a bit, landed in the sack, then watched from afar while the club was relegated.
The ballad of Maurizio Sarri is a tempestuous little ditty even if Kepa isn't interested in 11-part harmony. Performances are flat. Boos emanate from the stands.
Much like Arsenal, the Blues changed manager hoping to restore Champions League football. With a game in hand on Arsenal and Manchester United, they have more opportunities to pick up points and surpass their rivals but just because there's room for error doesn't mean Sarri should waste the advantage by capitulating to Fulham.
Should the Cottagers conjure a win here, it will be their first triumphant game against Chelsea in 13 years. The musically-named Luis Boa Morte scored the winner back in 2006. Should the Cottagers channel the Lisbonite's positivity, it's just the first stanza. If the points don't keep coming, the hopeful aria will descend into a funeral dirge.
If it's your money on the line, a Chelsea victory is surely on the cards. The pensioners will press for the top three as they try to galvanise their form. They only want to leave Fulham behind yet again.