LONDON (AFP) – The battle for Champions League qualification in the Premier League takes on new intensity this weekend with two high-stakes derby clashes involving teams pursuing a top-four finish.
Arsenal, who trail fourth-place Southampton on goal difference alone, tackle north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in a contest between two sides who have found form in recent weeks.
Liverpool, meanwhile, visit Everton, having climbed to within four points of the Champions League places with a haul of 16 points from a possible 18 – a run matched only by Lyon in Europe’s five major leagues.
The weekend’s action begins at White Hart Lane on Saturday, where Tottenham will go in search of only a second win over Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in eight encounters.
Both teams are in good shape, with Tottenham having lost only once in their last nine league games and Arsenal only once in their last eight.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, two points behind their local rivals in sixth place, have been given reason for optimism by the news that Arsenal top scorer Alexis Sanchez will miss the game with a hamstring injury.
But Arsenal scarcely missed the Chilean last weekend, crushing Aston Villa 5-0 at the Emirates Stadium to record a third consecutive league win for the first time this season.
“This is a massive game and it is all about the bragging rights,” Arsenal winger Theo Walcott, a scorer against Villa, told the London Evening Standard newspaper.
“It is one of the biggest games for both sets of fans and this year it is going to be tight.”
Liverpool’s trip to Goodison Park later on Saturday will be Steven Gerrard’s last Merseyside derby before he leaves Anfield for Los Angeles Galaxy at the end of the campaign.
The Liverpool captain, 34, made his 700th appearance for the club in Wednesday’s 2-1 FA Cup win at Bolton Wanderers and manager Brendan Rodgers has backed him to sign off in style against old foes Everton.
“He’ll want to win, like he does every time,” Rodgers told a press conference on Thursday.
“How will he deal with the emotion of it being his last? Like he has all the others – by being focused on the team getting a result.”
Everton, 12 points below seventh-place Liverpool in 12th place, will draw little encouragement from the news that Daniel Sturridge is in line to face them.
The England striker made a scoring return from injury in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over West Ham United last weekend and scored three times in the derby last season, including an 89th-minute equaliser in a 3-3 draw at Goodison.
Manchester United, a point above Southampton in third place, visit West Ham United, whose own challenge for European qualification has run into trouble after a return of one win from six matches.
United’s form dipped around the turn of the year as they won only once in five league games, but successive wins over Leicester City and Cambridge United, in the FA Cup, have given Louis van Gaal’s men a spring in their step.
Southampton’s top-four bid was hit by a 1-0 loss to Swansea City last weekend and on Saturday they visit second-bottom Queens Park Rangers, who are without a manager following Harry Redknapp’s resignation.
Redknapp stepped down on Tuesday, citing the need to undergo knee surgery, with back-room staff Chris Ramsey and Kevin Bond placed in charge of the first team on a temporary basis.
Pochettino claimed this week that Southampton’s impressive form has been due to the foundations he put down at St Mary’s last season before leaving for Tottenham.
In response, Southampton coach Ronald Koeman quipped: “Thanks to Mauricio, I’ve got an easy job. It was the reason I came here, to have a little holiday.”
Leaders Chelsea and second-place Manchester City, currently separated by five points, both face apparently straightforward fixtures.
Chelsea, who held City to a 1-1 draw last weekend, visit Villa, who have gone eight games without a win and not scored in over 10 hours of league football, while champions City travel to third-bottom Hull City.