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North London, Merseyside and Madrid derbies: Five defining questions

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday’s football action sees three intriguing derby fixtures set to be played in quick succession, with rivals from North London, Merseyside and Madrid coming to blows.

Arsenal travel to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham in the first of the three fixtures, before Atlético Madrid host European champions Real Madrid at the Estadio Vicente Calderón.

Liverpool’s trip to Goodison Park, which is Steven Gerrard’s 33rd and last clash against Everton, complete the enticing triumvirate in what should be a scintillating day’s action.

With points and pride on the line, here are five key questions to consider ahead of the derby day fixtures.

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

We have been here before. Tottenham have shown signs that they have the quality to consistently finish in the Premier League’s top four over the last decade, but rivals Arsenal seemingly have had the hoodoo over Spurs when the chips are down.

Under a new manager, the White Hart Lane side’s credentials will be put to the test once more, with victory a necessity if Mauricio Pochettino’s young team are to aspire to greater things.

Arsenal are in good form and possess enviable attacking talent, but at home and with a fully fit squad, Tottenham need to win this game if they are serious about Champions League football next season.

Defeat today would leave Spurs five points adrift of their rivals and struggling.

They have shown that they can go toe-to-toe with the best, with a 5-3 victory over Chelsea last month an example in point.

I read an astonishing stat this week however that highlights the importance of today’s game; in the last five years, Spurs have finished a season ahead of every club in the Premier League – except Arsenal.

It’s time to find out if a new era awaits or if it is just another false dawn.

Just how good are Arsenal without attacking talisman Alexis Sánchez?

Arsenal will be full of confidence heading into today’s short trip into rival territory having won their last five games, not conceding a goal in the process.

However, with undoubted star man Alexis Sánchez said to be set to miss the clash at Spurs, other Gunners stars will need to step up.

Mesut Özil, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott have something of a point to prove, while Olivier Giroud has been in good form but needs to do the business consistently.

With Alexis missing Arsenal lose a world-class star; it is time for others to prove their worth also.

Can Raphaël Varane lead Real Madrid’s makeshift defence?

Raphaël VaraneEarlier this year I wrote an article stating that it was a crucial time in Raphaël Varane’s development, given that Pepe had picked up injury and the Frenchman would be given an extended run in the Real Madrid team as a result.

However, the usual back-up option will be propelled to key figure status today at Atlético as Sergio Ramos will also miss the clash after picking up injury against Sevilla in midweek.

With inexperienced Nacho Fernández set to partner Varane at the heart of the visitors’ rearguard, the emphasis will be on the former Lens man to take control and show a bit of authority.

With Antoine Griezmann in superb form and the seemingly rejuvenated Fernando Torres ready to be introduced from the bench, Atleti’s high pressing line will put a lot of pressure on Varane and the European champions’ backline.

Are defending champions Atlético Madrid realistic La Liga title challengers?

After a surprising and quite frankly exceptional effort to win La Liga last season, Atlético find themselves in third place ahead of this weekend’s action and seven points adrift of today’s opponents.

With Madrid looking like the most complete team in Europe currently and Barcelona clicking into gear in 2015 due to an unplayable Lionel Messi, Diego Simeone’s men must get three points today to stay in the hunt.

The Vicente Calderón outfit have no right to take the fight to the Clásico superpowers given their respective budgets, but for Atlético to continue their presence amongst Spanish football’s elite another victory over their illustrious rivals is a pre-requisite.

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

Liverpool’s hopes of retaining a place in the Premier League’s top four hang in the balance, with Brendan Rodgers’ men stringing together some positive results of late and welcoming key striker Daniel Sturridge back from injury.

However, despite today’s clash with Everton set to play its part in the Reds’ Champions League qualification hopes, the game also marks the end of an era for the visitors.

Steven Gerrard will play his 33rd and final game against the Toffees for his boyhood club before setting off for America in the summer, with the Anfield club facing the nigh-impossible task of replacing their captain and talisman.

The former England international has played a critical role in Liverpool’s successes over their cross-city rivals throughout his 18-year senior career to date but with his departure imminent the likes of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva need to step up.

Although summer recruitment at Anfield is likely, Henderson has the potential to be Liverpool’s next captain and follow in the footsteps of his world-beating team-mate; proving it today at Goodison would be a good start.

Enjoy today’s action and come back tomorrow to find out the answers to these five intriguing questions.

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