Arsenal 1 Stoke City 0
This was a home game that started with a slightly different routine for me. Rather than take my usual pre match trip to the pub to sink some Guinness, instead the alarm was set for 7am for a pre match trip to London Colney. An acquaintance had invited me to watch the U-18s game against Newcastle at 10.45 on Saturday morning, so I braved the biting cold in the open motorway surrounds of the Gunners training ground as Serge Gnabry`s first half rocket was enough to give Arsenal a 1-0 victory. A quick dash to Willesden Junction and then a train into Highbury and Islington had me in N5 at around 2.30pm. Perfect.
Of course this was a game against Stoke City, so large parts of it were spent watching Asmir Begovic lining up goal kicks and Ryan Shotton doing his hair and make up before taking a throw in. It`s not the long balls or long throws that make Stoke such a hard team to like. The relentless cynicism in all that they do make them a totally joyless side. Even the technically good players they have have the creative life sucked out of them by Pulis` brand of miserably cynicism. Arsenal knew that Stoke were likely to defend narrow, so opted for Chamberlain and Walcott on the flanks to try and spread the game. Mikel Arteta returned to the side in defensive midfield and Abou Diaby replaced Santi Cazorla, who is carrying an injury according to the manager. Nacho Monreal made his debut at left back.
In truth, the first half an hour was rather drab. Stoke predictably played with two compact banks of bodies and invited Arsenal to try and break them down, which the Gunners found hard going. Set pieces were actually Arsenal`s most potent threat. Wilshere`s right wing delivery somehow smuggled its way to Chamberlain inside the six yard area, he rearranged his feet and prodded a shot towards goal which Begovic moved smartly to block. Walcott`s left wing corner a few minutes later saw Giroud find space in the area, but he bafflingly elected to try and nod the ball down rather than head towards goal. Walcott collected the subsequent Stoke clearance and sent in a cross which was met firmly by Koscielny but once again Begovic was equal to it.
The Gunners` build up play was too laboured and the passing too ponderous. This is never helped by the presence of Abou Diaby who almost deliberately seems to slow the game down as his brain visibly ticks over with the ball at his feet. The one fast piece of one touch football we managed in the half gifted Arsenal their best chance. Giroud came short for a smart one two with Wilshere, he arced a beautiful pass to the onrushing Chamberlain, but Begovic made a fine stretching stop as The Ox sought to curl the ball into the far corner. Though the Gunners did raise the tempo, they did not cause Stoke enough trouble. Stoke`s series of hopeful punts to Crouch did little to trouble Arsenal either. Arsenal Column goes into some nice detail on that here , especially with regards to the performances of Sagna and the return of Arteta.
Arsenal managed to open Stoke up at the beginning of the second half with some wonderful interplay. Wilshere played the ball into Giroud, he again dug out the sand wedge to deliver his trademark loft over the Stoke defence, Wilshere read the pass and cut the ball back to Giroud with a deft touch, but Huth did just enough to put him off his shot, which he blazed over the crossbar. Arsene followed up with a couple of predictable but sensible changes, Cazorla and Podolski came on for Diaby and Chamberlain. It was Walcott who was providing the most threat to Stoke and when Andy Wilkinson couldn`t catch him for the umpteenth time, he brought Walcott down and the referee gave a free kick. It was a blessed relief; Foy had made some dizzyingly poor calls as Stoke fouls went constantly undetected.
Lukas Podolski lined up the free kick, bending it round the wall. It probably would have been a routine save for Begovic, but the ball ricocheted off of Geoff Cameron and into the net. There was a slice of fortune in the goal, but it was deserved enough. However, the celebrations were hamstrung somewhat when the linesman appeared to flag for offside. He mistakenly thought the ball had hit Giroud on its way in. I sit in the upper tier above the linesman on that side and felt it was a terrible call initially. But in fairness, Giroud and Cameron were probably exactly level in his eye line. In any case, Foy discussed the incident with his assistant and common sense prevailed, with the goal given. Pulis threw on Cameron Jerome, ex footballer Michael Owen and Kenwyne Jones to little avail. In fact, Arsenal ought to have extended their lead, when Cazorla squeezed through the Stoke defence, placed a finish high towards the top corner, only for Begovic to thrust out a hand and tip the ball over. An incredible stop.
The goalmouth incident pretty much ended there, but the controversy didn`t. Ryan Shawcross went in high and late on Koscielny and was booked (seconds before Ramsey came on as it turned out). In real time I felt Shawcross had made a fair attempt to win the ball, but had just been beaten to it by Koscielny. The replays showed that he elevated his foot to show his studs and you can`t convince me he wasn`t "leaving some on" Koscielny. The Arsenal fans had made their mind up already, chanting "he`s gonna cry in a minute" at Shawcross. Stoke are a club that push the "man`s game" agenda, but nobody whinges more than they do about perceived ills. This unfounded victim complex was crystallized when Michael Owen took exception to a beautifully clean tackle by Arteta (which Pulis later had the nerve to describe as "a poor challenge") and swung the girliest punch at Arteta`s arm in frustration. Like most bullies, Stoke like to dish out but, to borrow one of Pulis` phrases, they "moan like drains" at the slightest perception that they have been wronged. Beating them via a jammy deflection was actually incredibly satisfying. LD.