Monday, April 19, 2021
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Alan Smith column: Kieran Tierney faces tough north London derby if Gareth Bale keeps up winning form

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It’s not often you’d describe the north London derby as a sideshow, but this one, in fairness, is as close as it gets.

For both clubs, the Europa League has become the main focus of attention. For Spurs, it’s a chance to win some much-needed silverware. For Arsenal, with their top-four chances virtually gone, it’s more about finding a way back into the Champions League to boost flagging finances as much as anything else.

That said, the derby is the derby and I can’t see either manager resting players for this one. For a start, the fans would go mad if it ended up costing their team. And after one or two nervy moments, both sides are in strong positions to reach the Europa League quarter-finals.

Mind you, Arsenal continued their exasperating habit on Thursday of making life much harder, by gifting the opposition a goal through a schoolboy mistake. I bet Mikel Arteta can’t believe what he’s seeing at times. His players have successfully taken on board so many of his methods, only to undo the good work with a stupid error.

As a manager, it must be difficult to find a solution, because you’re depending on players making good decisions at key moments. That’s hard to coach. It’s more about game intelligence and composure from the individual.

It’s not as if the latest fiasco in Athens is a recent trend. You can go as far back as last July, when Sead Kolasinac’s wayward pass let Spurs back into the game after Alexandre Lacazette’s thunderous strike had put the Gunners ahead. And we’ve seen a good few more bloopers since from players who should know better.

With this in mind, the make-up of Arteta’s defence could be a vital factor today. It’s never easy predicting the Spaniard’s line-up. Which combination in central defence, for instance, represents his first choice?

And has Cedric Soares become a proper rival for Hector Bellerin at right-back? What we can say for certain is that, all being well, Kieran Tierney will play at left-back, which sets up a fascinating tussle with Gareth Bale. The Welshman proved once again on Thursday that the sharpness is back. He has now got the confidence to try difficult things, such as swinging in a cross with the outside of his left foot.

Arsenal FC via Getty Images

After so long on the sidelines, you can tell Bale is properly enjoying his football again. And this kind of occasion will really appeal. It will to Tierney as well, of course, and the tough Scot will see the duel as a personal challenge.

Can he quickly get tight to smother his man? Can he match Bale in a straight race down the line or match him for strength while  jousting for a bouncing ball? Against a fit and motivated Bale, none of this comes easy to any defender, but Tierney has it in him to come through unscathed.

As for which team will win the day, that isn’t quite as crucial as in your average season.

Man United vs West Ham (Sunday, 7:15pm)

Consistency: David Moyes has been banging that particular drum all season. If his West Ham team can’t achieve that, he argues, they will never become a serious proposition. He’s right, of course. And the Hammers are getting dangerously close to that stability of performance Moyes so badly craves.

Strangely enough, it contrasts quite sharply with United’s form. They might be six points ahead of West Ham going into this one, but you never know what to expect from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. One minute they can hardly land a punch on Crystal Palace, the next they’re ending Manchester City’s long winning run with a fine display.

Thursday’s lethargic outing against AC Milan was another example of their erratic trait. So opportunities exist at Old Trafford tonight. How Moyes would love to nick a win at his former club.

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