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Saturday 3 December 2016

Wenger's red peril

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday, live, bt sport 1 (ko 12.30)

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is worried about Granit Xhaka’s disciplinary record ahead of the North London derby on Sunday
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is worried about Granit Xhaka’s disciplinary record ahead of the North London derby on Sunday

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admitted he is concerned by Granit Xhaka's disciplinary record ahead of Sunday's north London derby at home to Tottenham.

The Switzerland midfielder is in line to play against the Gunners' fierce local rivals for the first time, with Santi Cazorla likely to be still sidelined with an Achilles problem.

Xhaka, 24, has picked up eight red cards for club and country since April 2014 and is returning from a domestic ban following his dismissal in last month's 3-2 win over Swansea.

He scored his first Champions League goal as Arsenal came from 2-0 down to beat Ludogorets in Sofia on Tuesday night and progress into the last 16 for the 17th straight season.

But the number of cards collected by the £35million summer recruit is a worry for Wenger as Arsenal look for a first home Premier League win over Spurs in three years.

"Am I bit concerned? Yes, of course," he said when asked if Xhaka's record was an issue.

"The discipline is important and we want to be effective in all situations we face and in the derby it is important to keep control of your reaction and to have a strong discipline, because it is part of the effectiveness in these games.

"Normally he is a very composed and calm guy. Sometimes on the field he has a reaction that is a bit impulsive and he knows that.

"It is not because you talk about that. He has to work on that and keep control of his reactions in the game."

Tottenham have yet to finish above Arsenal since Wenger took over 20 years ago, but they came closest to doing so last term.

Title race

Mauricio Pochettino's side were in the title race for much of the campaign but, having lost out to Leicester, they then fell to third behind Arsenal on the last day after a 5-1 defeat at relegated Newcastle.

Spurs are unbeaten in the league this season and sit three points behind Arsenal, who are level on points at the top with Manchester City and Liverpool.

And Wenger is anticipating another tight derby after both of last season's meetings ended in draws.

"It is an interesting clash because for us it is a very important game because we are in a strong position in the league that we want to strengthen," he said.

"Overall Tottenham as well, so it is very tight at the top of the league. We are more focused that it is a home game, to win the game - whether it is Tottenham or somebody else.

"We want to win our home games because our position in the league is very important and we go into a period where we play big games and we want to win the big games."

Wenger is waiting on a quintet of players to overcome injuries and prove their fitness ahead of the clash.

Theo Walcott, Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla all missed the win in Bulgaria and face fitness tests.

Of those four, Walcott is the closest to making it into contention to face Spurs, while Cazorla is a doubt having not trained all week.

Kieran Gibbs may also miss out after he suffered a shoulder injury in the victory over Ludogorets, while Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud will be hopeful of retaining their places.

Meanwhile, Pochettino admitted he was embarrassed as Tottenham's second successive defeat at Wembley on Wednesday left their hopes of Champions League qualification hanging by a thread.

Spurs were well below par at the national stadium and Bayer Leverkusen took full advantage, claiming a 1-0 victory thanks to Kevin Kampl's second-half winner.

The result means Pochettino's men have now won only once in seven matches at Wembley and lost both their games there this season, after being beaten 2-1 at home to Monaco in September.

Pochettino, however, insists the unfamiliar venue is no excuse.

"There is no better place to play than Wembley," he said. "Losing in front of 85,000 people, it's embarrassing for me, it's a shame. We have to look at ourselves.

"You cannot blame Wembley. Wembley for me was fantastic, but we need to show more.

"We were poor again, we need to find answers in ourselves. We need to be critical. We were the problem, not Wembley.

"We were very disappointed we didn't show quality. Stop blaming Wembley, it's not Wembley."

The defeat leaves Tottenham with a mountain to climb in Group E, where they sit third, two points behind Leverkusen and four back on Monaco, who they face away in France later this month.

Spurs then return to Wembley for the final group match in December against CSKA Moscow.

"We must win in Monaco," said Pochettino. "If not, forget the Champions League."

Spurs are now winless in six matches since thrashing Manchester City so impressively a month ago and have failed to score from open play in their last five.

Harry Kane could offer a timely boost by returning against Arsenal on Sunday but Pochettino insists the whole team must do better.

"We need to improve and we don't have too much time," Pochettino said.

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