Will the North London Derby define the 2018/19 Premier League season?
Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC BY-SA 3.0
Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoons in which he went up against the Tasmanian Devil? They always began with Bugs tunnelling in from the distance, popping out of the ground and taking a wary look around.
"This doesn't look like Coney Island," he'd say while snacking on a carrot and berating himself. "I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque."
A herd of frightened animals would then stampede past, ignoring his attempts to ask directions, leaving him in their wake to deal with Taz. In some ways, this recalls Tottenham's attempts to find their way to a completed, new White Hart Lane. It's not anywhere near where it should be but there are people running about in a panic.
If I'm going to compare the North London Derby to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, though, it ought to be one in which he faces off against Daffy Duck to see who can best handle the villain. Elmer Fudd represents Manchester City, whom both the Gunners and Spurs are trying to keep in sight in the Premier League title race. Daffy and Bugs then become Unai Emery and Mauricio Pochettino who are friendly rivals in real life. City already dispatched Arsenal 2-0 early in the season, which makes Unai Emery Daffy getting a double barrel full of buckshot from Elmer. I just have a hard time imagining the Spaniard twisting his beak back around to the front of his face and telling Poch he's despicable. Nor can I picture Pep Guardiola confused over whether it's rabbit, duck or Premier League season, although he sometimes stutters while trying to find the right words in English.
No, Bugs and Taz come to mind thanks to that missed turn at Albuquerque. Haring off in the wrong direction often leaves you in a troublesome mess. Our ambition, meanwhile, compels us to ask what if? What if we'd gone in the right direction? What if the referee had called the stone-cold penalty on Shkodran Mustafi for bringing down Harry Kane? What if Arsene Wenger had thought it important to sign some quality defenders and a proper d-mid?
Today's match between Arsenal and Spurs may well come down to what if Emery had started Mesut Ozil or what if the out-of-sorts German had the moxie to respond to his benching last week with a monster outing?
Handicapping the outcome isn't my concern here, however. I wouldn't want to cost you any money. Instead, I'm fascinated by the importance of the moment. Given the present lay of the land, we may look back to this match-up at season's end to ask 'What if?'.
On Saturday, Elmer Fudd, I mean Manchester City, dusted off a willing but overmatched Bournemouth squad at the Etihad, 3-1. City now sit on 38 points after scoring 43 goals and conceding six in 14 league matches. Both Arsenal and Tottenham must win to keep pace. Only one can. Worse, if both fail, the Premier League will be down to a two-team race between City and Liverpool a month before the New Year.
In the best-case scenario, it will be a three-team race with Spurs still in the hunt. On 30 points, a win keeps them within five points of the Sky-Blues. Should the Gunners defend their house, both teams will be eight points behind. They'll need Guardiola's crew to drop at least three games to let them back in it, not considering how Liverpool fares in the Merseyside Derby or going forward.
Meanwhile, over in Spain, La Liga is wide open with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid at the top. Los Blancos aren't even in the thick of it. Somehow, the two leagues have switched identities. There's a what-if for you.
If you're a neutral English football fan, it seems in your best interest to root for Tottenham in this one, just to keep the campaign interesting. Otherwise, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp will have Coney Island all to themselves for the foreseeable future and the rest of us will regret not taking that left turn at Albuquerque.