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Feb 2, 2013

Arsenal show their mettle

So much for perceptions in football. The accepted narrative is that Stoke's physicality generally unsettles Arsenal and yet, thanks to Lukas Podolski's deflected late strike, Arsene Wenger's side continued their trend of winning every home game against their supposed nemeses.

This wasn't exactly a case of movement against muscularity. As the Arsenal manager said after the game, his side "prepared mentally" for that challenge. In truth, they occasionally did their best to pre-empt it.

The most notable example of what was a game with a fair amount of needle came when Mikel Arteta went in strongly with a Stoke-like tackle on Michael Owen. The substitute was sufficiently aggrieved to flick his arm at the midfielder, before Jack Wilshere then squared up to him.

Long before that Arsenal illustrated a willingness to stand up - or even jump up - for themselves. Just before half-time, debutant Nacho Monreal came out the better from an aerial duel with Jon Walters, leaving the Stoke forward in a heap on the ground and with claret gushing from his head. The bandage he later sported, along with Robert Huth, appropriately reflected the style of the game.

As Wenger later said of Monreal's immediate adjustment: "There is no better culture shock than Stoke when you come from Spain."

It was just as well that Arsenal illustrated sufficient perseverance, because they didn't exactly wow anyone themselves with their passing.

There was even a curious inversion to the first half. While Stoke occasionally passed around in midfield and even took a fair few shots, it was the home side who were favouring crosses and efforts from set-pieces. Rather predictably against such a physically imposing backline who themselves favour the air, they didn't get much joy other than one Wilshere corner. Although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was only six yards out, Asmir Begovic was equal to it.

Just before half-time, in the one moment of quality in the first period, the goalkeeper won another face-off between the two as he tipped aside the winger's curling effort after an exquisite pass from Wilshere.

"He's a top goalkeeper and made some fantastic saves," Pulis enthused afterwards, but with a significant caveat. "The speculation now will be about Asmir."

In truth, Arsenal didn't really trouble him in the second half despite their dominance. Too many of Olivier Giroud's headers were wayward, too many other crosses overhit.

It was arguably appropriate - and somewhat inevitable - that Arsenal's winner came from a strike that didn't even reach its intended target. With Begovic diving to his right to meet Podolski's free-kick, the ball was deflected off the Stoke wall and into the centre of the goal. Although the linesman initially flagged for a touch by Theo Walcott, the referee correctly awarded the goal.

That may change another perception around Arsenal's campaign. Because, prior to the goal, this game had the feel of one they would previously have dropped points in. What's more, they seemed a team that were unable to influence or alter a game that wasn't already going their way.

Instead, by persevering despite lacking their usually necessary precision, they got a result that would have often been beyond them and converted an ugly game into a very good evening. Given how other results also went their way, will this performance finally allow them to kick on and repeat last season's run-in? Wenger certainly felt it had fortified spirit.

"They made it difficult for us but we kept going. Overall, a bit lucky on the goal but we deserved this win," Wenger insisted. "We are a team who can create chances and score goals. Today, it was not the case... but I'm happy that we didn't concede and looked solid.

"We were in a position where we can't drop points. Overall, we deserved to win the game. It strengthens our belief and confidence."

It also strengthens their hand for the run-in. Arsenal are now only five points off a stumbling Chelsea and one off Tottenham, even if their arch rivals have a game in hand.

Even if there are still a few concerns about the failure to add an extra option to attack, they appear to have brought in a new resilience. Arsenal were undeniably fortunate here. But they also looked to have a bit more fortitude.

More than anything, it was Stoke who left this game bruised and battered. And not just because Walters ended up with six stitches. It was Arsenal who ended it with the points.

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