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North London, Merseyside and Madrid derbies: Five defining questions answered

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hree top European derbies enthralled the football world on a Super Saturday of action in England and Spain yesterday, with bitter foes from North London, Merseyside and Madrid locking horns.

Yesterday I posed five key questions ahead of the games, with the action giving an insight into the progress of the competing sides and their chances of achieving their respective goals this season.

After 270 minutes of derby action, let’s answer these telling questions surrounding the six clubs involved.

Are Tottenham ready to challenge for the top four under Pochettino?

Spurs having seemingly been in the shadow of their North London rivals for a generation but the tables were truly turned at White Hart Lane yesterday as the hosts put in their most accomplished performance of the season to beat Arsenal 2-1.

With Arsène Wenger stating post-match that Spurs deserved to win the game, despite an over-reliance on the superb Harry Kane for goals, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have made notable progress this term.

However, it was the manner of victory that really stood out.

Having fallen a goal behind against the run of play, Tottenham teams of old would have started to feel sorry for themselves and lacked the strength of character to get back in the game.

This time round Spurs continued to dominate possession, fought tooth-and-nail to get back into the ascendancy and showed a mental solidarity that has been absent for a long time. The fact that the White Hart Lane side have taken a division-high 15 points from losing positions in 2014-15 is testament to this new-found spirit.

Pochettino has seemingly toughened Spurs up both mentally and physically, with the collective resolve shown indicating that the longstanding North London monopoly is under threat and Tottenham can challenge for Champions League qualification.

Just how good are Arsenal without attacking talisman Alexis Sánchez?

As well as Tottenham played yesterday, Arsenal were not the same penetrating attacking force that has been in display since the turn of the year.

Although Danny Welbeck showed excellent pace to set up Mesut Özil’s opener and also tested Hugo Lloris with a curled effort in the second half, Spurs were relatively comfortable in containing the Gunners.

The defensive ethos that saw them get three points at the Etihad Stadium earlier this year was adopted once more, but without Alexis Sánchez’s movement and cutting edge Arsenal looked nowhere near as dangerous as they did against City.

The fact that Arsenal only had five shots (two on target) compared to Tottenham’s 18 and three corners compared to the hosts’ ten is a telling sign that the visitors sorely missed the scintillating Chilean and are not the same team without him.

Given the transfer fees spent, quality and international status of the attacking players that did play, the fact they did not deliver will be a cause of real concern to Wenger and the Emirates Stadium faithful.

Can Raphaël Varane lead Real Madrid’s makeshift defence?

Antoine GriezmannIn the second of three derbies, Atletico Madrid cut their cross-city rivals Real to ribbons, with the visiting back four unable to contain a vibrant home attack.

Although none of the other three Los Blancos defenders covered themselves in glory at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, Raphaël Varane was put through the ringer in a torrid 90 minutes.

There is no doubting this ability and the potential to develop into a top centre-half; his pace, aerial prowess, positioning and technique on the ball were all on show during the 4-0 rout.

However, without a more-experienced partner in the heart of the Madrid defence, the Frenchman did not show any of the authority expected from him by Carlo Ancelotti and did not take ownership of organising the side’s rearguard.

Varane still looks like a player of potential rather than the finished article and in the hostile environment of the Calderón, wilted under the pressure.

He is arguably a better all-round defender than Pepe or Sergio Ramos, but Madrid sorely missed a commanding presence, leadership and a vocal enforcer in the pair’s absence.

Are defending champions Atlético Madrid realistic La Liga title challengers?

The scoreline answers this question wholeheartedly, with not many sides in Europe possessing the quality to beat Real Madrid 4-0.

Diego Simeone has done an outstanding job in bringing his squad together to work as a unit and the reigning champions certainly cannot be discounted from this term’s title race.

The desire, collective work-rate and attitude of the Atlético team have been the most impressive features of the Argentinian’s tenure in the Spanish capital, which was thoroughly on show again yesterday.

However, with some exhilarating football and quality in possession to go with it, Atleti look set to be a major fixture in the race to win La Liga again this season.

Have Liverpool got a leader to fill Steven Gerrard’s shoes next season?

The day’s action concluded with an underwhelming 0-0 draw on Merseyside, with neither side playing to their best at Goodison Park.

The occasion marked Steven Gerrard’s final clash with Everton after 18 years of confrontation, and the veteran midfielder came closest to winning the game for Liverpool.

A left-footed first-time strike at the death and an acrobatic bicycle kick were arguably the Reds’ best chances to break the deadlock, with Gerrard showing he is still a force to reckoned with in the Liverpool side.

To their credit, the visitors looked the more likely to score, had the bulk of the possession and took the game to Everton in an attempt to record three points.

Jordan Henderson showed determination and quality in glimpses, but Gerrard’s influence and sheer presence is something that will take some replacing next season.

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