LONDON (Reuters) - When reporters tried to tempt Arsenal manager Unai Emery into early speculation about the hugely significant Premier League derby with oldest rivals Tottenham Hotspur next Sunday, he was keen to offer a reminder that it is not the club’s next game.
On Thursday, his team face a long trip to Ukraine to play Vorskla Poltava in the Europa League, needing a victory to consolidate first place in the group.
Only after returning early on Friday will they turn thoughts to the league game little more than 48 hours later against opponents still three points above them after both won at the weekend.
It is hardly ideal preparation for the fixture Arsenal supporters traditionally regard as the biggest of the season, at home to the club they first antagonised more than 100 years ago by moving across the River Thames from south to north London, where Spurs were established as the largest club.
The main consolation for Emery this week is that the old enemy face a more important European game themselves, with Spurs knowing they must beat Inter Milan on Wednesday to have any chance of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stage.
Spurs lie third in a tough group, three points behind Inter and six behind leaders Barcelona.
Although Mauricio Pochettino’s side will be at home to the Italians as well as having an extra day to rest and prepare for Sunday, they will not be able to leave out as many first-choice players as Arsenal, who have a three-point cushion in their Europa League group.
“For us, the Europa League is very important,” Emery told the Arsenal website (www.arsenal.com) after Sunday’s 2-1 victory away to Bournemouth put them fifth in the Premier League on 27 points, still hot on the heels of third-placed Spurs.
“We want to finish first in the (Europa League) group. It’s a long travel and suddenly after we will play Tottenham, but I want to give the team rest for the competition.
“We want to finish first, but Sunday is a very big match for us.”
Leaving out midfielder Mesut Ozil and striker Alexandre Lacazette, who was not fully fit, from the Bournemouth game, offered the opportunity for rotation in a busy period.
So did switching to a three-man defence for the first time in a Premier League game this season as Arsenal just managed to hold out in a close contest.
Spurs unexpectedly had a more comfortable weekend game on Saturday, inflicting a first defeat of the season on Chelsea 3-1.
“We need to realise that with the right attitude we are a team that can compete at this level,” Pochettino said. “We have a difficult time ahead.”
Regarded by many as a potential target for Real Madrid — or even Manchester United — next summer, Pochettino will be more aware than most of how important the next week is to Tottenham’s ambitions and his own.
Writing by Steve Tongue; Editing by Ian Chadband