Heads, We Win! Arsenal Close Gap But At What Cost?
Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke City
1 – 0 Squillaci (8)
Sèbastien Squillaci scored a vital winner to close the gap on Manchester United at the top of the table, one point now the difference. The win came at a price; Theo Walcott definitely misses Sunday’s Carling Cup Final whilst Cesc Fàbregas joined Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny as doubtful, the Spainard’s hamstring tightened, the player withdrawn as a precaution.
The outcome was of little surprise. Stoke were always going to be the least adventurous of visitors to The Emirates; they did not disappoint. Fàbregas’ substitution was pivotal, Arsenal lost their most influential player yet Stoke did not capitalise on that, only Carew drew a meaningful save from Szczesny.
Shawcross’ header hit Djourou in the face and Pennant rippled the sidenetting their other chances; one shot on target during ninety minutes sums up Tony Pulis’ attitude to this match. Defensive, dour and unadventurous.
Arsenal were rampant in the opening twenty minutes with Theo Walcott the chief antagonist. In the second minute, Wilshere and Fàbregas combined on the edge of the area, the Arsenal captain found a precise pass into the path of Walcott whose shot thundered into the inside of the post and back to the relative safety of a Stoke defender.
Moments later Walcott was played in for another effort which he dragged wide, Bendtner the provider on this occasion. The duo would once more combine, this time Begovic stopped Walcott in his tracks. For this spell in the game, Stoke were as much helpless as hopeless.
The threatened breakthrough duly arrived. Organisation at set-pieces is the strength of sides which deploy dullard tactics; in the eighth minute, Stoke were shambolic. Wilshere’s corner caused consternation but was flicked clear to Bendtner, close to the by-line. The Dane returned the ball into the six yard box where the unmarked Squillaci headed home.
So much for the aerial superiority of the visitors. If they could not win those battles, there was no hope for them. Or that is how it seemed at this point in the match. Five or so minutes later, the spark of the match would die a little with Fàbregas’ withdrawal. Arsenal enjoyed more possession of the ball than is usual; in excess of 75% for the first half, reducing to a trifling 60% overall.
That dominance did not negate Stoke entirely. A lot of the ball that Arsenal had led to blind alleys, the chances not created to match that superiority. Warnings were few and far between but John Carew enjoyed his encounters with Arsenal whilst at Valencia, Szczesny’s one handed save to his right prevented an equaliser from the Norwegian. It is another promising sign for the Pole; little to do during the evening yet alert to opposition forays.
Stoke’s capitulation in the first half would only lead to a heavy defeat if repeated in the second. A change was wrought, they realised that attack could bring rewards and within ten minutes very nearly did. Pennant crossed from the right, Shawcross met it with a firm header, Djourou’s face diverting the ball to safety.
A more traditional route for Stoke goals emerged minutes later as Delap hurled the ball into the area, Huth’s header cleared the bar and almost landed cleanly in the first row of supporters.
Arsenal responded. Jack Wilshere shot from distance straight at Begovic whilst Theo Walcott could not find the right finish following good work from Arshavin on the right. Just as it seemed Arsenal would be upping their gears once more, Whitehead brought Walcott down; unlike Clichy and Walters, the Stoke player would escape a deserved yellow card for his foul.
With the introduction of Denilson, the width Arsenal had previously enjoyed disappeared. Arsenal were prepared to close the game out, nick a second if possible but to enjoy a clean sheet. Pennant’s late free kick almost put paid to that aspiration, it seems a long time ago that he graced Highbury with his only three Arsenal goals against Southampton on a balmy May evening.
Post match, Arsène was pleased with the points, the ‘professional’ manner in which there were achieved. The injury to Cesc is being assessed today, his participation on Sunday in doubt. As it is both he and the manager will be happy that United have been caught, even if temporarily, but the pressure is on them with wins in their two games vital, before Sunderland visit The Emirates next weekend.
I’ll leave Arsène to sum up his view of Stoke,
I was quite surprised how intelligently they defended
Me? I’ve never forgiven them for Terry Conroy. ’til Tomorrow.