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Stoke provide unhappy returns for Campbell

Never go back. That was the clichéd advice, repeated often in the wake of his unexpected return. But when the alternatives are continued employment at a club spiralling towards administration, whom he alleges owe him £1.7 million, and League Two football under the auspices of a shady consortium whose promises swiftly prove to be pipe dreams or falsehoods, going back does not appear the worst of career moves. It wasn't exactly a case of many happy returns for Sol Campbell, whose last three matches have brought a hat-trick of defeats in the colours of a trio of different clubs. But nor did his first Arsenal appearance for three years and eight months contain the ignominy of his solitary game for Notts County, a 2-1 defeat at Morecambe, or the potential acrimony of his legal action against Portsmouth.

Social mobility may be a rarity in the carefully-defined footballing class system, but Campbell has gone from the Premier League to League Two and back again in the space of eight months. Notts County's No. 32 had become Arsenal's No. 31, a sporting pensioner reinvented as the senior citizen in Arsene Wenger's kindergarten crop.

If re-signing Campbell was a leftfield move, the same description could be applied to the Arsenal manager's team selection. Making nine changes conferred a seniority on Campbell; the uncertainty of Lukasz Fabianski, the rawness of Francis Coquelin and the eternal unreliability of Mikael Silvestre meant that this was far from the reliable rearguard of 'the Invincibles'.

He endured an awful start - through no fault of his own - when Rory Delap's second-minute throw sailed over his head and Ricardo Fuller capitalised on Fabianski's hesitancy to head in but, despite some awkward moments, he produced a performance of growing authority until, like his side, he was defeated by Stoke's late rally. Campbell was the man out-jumped by Fuller when the Jamaican scored his decisive second.

Stoke may provide a culture shock for a man whose previous Arsenal appearance came against Barcelona, in the 2006 Champions League final. They can provide anyone with an unpleasant occasion. Few can be eased back into action against the uncompromising Potters: there was an examination of his aerial ability from 'Big Mama' Sidibe, Stoke's totemic target man;

He had weighty responsibilities, dealing with Sidibe in open play, Ryan Shawcross at corners and, after the second minute, Fuller at long throws. The combination of experience and height meant much rested on a man who towered over most of his new team-mates, though he was capable of looking his opponents in the eye. In a defence otherwise lacking in natural communicators, he provided leadership.

"He did very well for a guy who has not played in five months," said Wenger. "It was a very good performance, maybe in the last 20 minutes he was a bit fatigued but he was surprisingly fit. Overall it was an encouraging performance. I believe he is motivated, he works very hard in training and he has been rewarded for the commitment he has put in in training."

Praise came, too, from the Stoke manager. "I thought he was smashing for a player who hasn't played at this level for a long time," said Tony Pulis. "I thought his attitude was absolutely brilliant. He'll be a good addition to the squad."

Not that Pulis could fault the attitude of his own charges. They led after 70 seconds, Fuller ghosting in from far post to near to head in Delap's long throw. Arsenal levelled with a dash of fortune as Denilson's shot was deflected in off Dean Whitehead.

While Wenger then made a triple change in a bid to avert a replay ("It worked," grinned the Arsenal manager), Stoke were the stronger after the arrival of Eduardo, Andrey Arshavin and Aaron Ramsey. They regained the lead when Sidibe surged down the right wing in unexpected fashion, capping possibly the longest solo run of his career with a cross that Fuller headed in.

"I was going to take Ric off and then he scores and changes it completely," admitted Pulis. "I thought the lad alongside him was absolutely outstanding as well. Sidibe does all the graft that people don't see a lot of time." Dean Whitehead completed victory from close range, following a fine cross from the threatening Matthew Etherington. Defeat, then, for Arsenal, whose wait for silverware dates back to 2005. But, given the context of their title challenge, it was a setback that Wenger could accept.

"I did not have much choice," he said. "We have 10 injuries and I cannot always play with the same 11." The next three weeks include meetings with Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea, Porto and Liverpool. It is only then that Wenger's gamble in selection can be judged. And while William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen are unchallenged as the preferred partnership in defence, then it will become clear if Campbell's unlikely return has taken him from the basement division to the summit of the Premier League.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ricardo Fuller - The Jamaican can be Stoke's greatest enigma. While some supporters have noted Pulis' reluctance to pick him against the Big Four teams, he entered this game with a mere two goals this season. A brace today provided evidence of the ability Fuller possess and the danger his blend of pace, power and skill can pose.

STOKE VERDICT: Without attempting the type of football Arsenal adore, they can provide a compelling spectacle at home where fervent support and committed players unite to trouble their supposed superiors. With Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton already out, it could just be Stoke's year.

ARSENAL VERDICT: There was a spirited showing from Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, the leggy teenager who was debuting in attack. Coquelin, making just his second start, began nervously. Yet it was telling that the two most inexperienced players were substituted along with Theo Walcott. In a dispiriting display, it was another ineffectual performance from the winger. Of the other reserves, Fabianski and Silvestre suggested they should stay on the bench.


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