Gunners count the cost of victory
The image of an Arsenal player departing the pitch on a stretcher against Stoke City has probably surfaced frequently in Arsene Wenger's nightmares of late. Twelve months on from the horrific broken leg suffered by Aaron Ramsey that hung inescapably over this game, Arsenal suffered collateral damage in their challenge on four fronts as they lost Theo Walcott to an ankle injury that will prevent his involvement in the Carling Cup final, while the extent of a hamstring problem afflicting Cesc Fabregas is yet to be determined. As feared, this 1-0 victory, which moves Arsenal to within a point of Manchester United at the top of the table, will be overshadowed by medical bulletins.
A year has been a long time to wait for Arsenal fans to deliver their judgement on Stoke City and Ramsey's assailant Ryan Shawcross, and they accepted it gratefully - "scum" appearing to be the popular description for a side that has been demonised in this corner of North London. Stoke are a side that do not appeal to Islington sensibilities, either with their direct approach or abrasive style, and were lambasted all night long.
But it was not a fair condemnation of Tony Pulis' side. While Dean Whitehead's challenge on Walcott that forced the winger off on a stretcher was messy, the injury it caused was merely a result of bad fortune as legs tangled, while Stoke's distinctive style and resolute defending frustrated the home side for long periods.
Wenger was notably complimentary about his opponents following a valuable yet potentially costly victory for the Gunners, as he said: "Overall it was played in a good spirit. I cannot complain. It was committed with strong challenges but overall correct. I have not an issue with the long throws; I have not an issue with any other aspect of their game. Nobody likes to play against Stoke because they have a very special way. But for me they defended in a very intelligent way."
It was certainly a different test to that which faced Arsenal last week at the Emirates Stadium. Indeed, a greater contrast in stylistic approaches would be difficult to envisage. Barcelona, held up as the global model of aesthetic football, and Stoke, demonised by some as the greatest exponents of 'anti-football' on English shores, are worlds apart, but they have both been subjected to one-goal defeats in this arena.
On the aesthetic scale, Arsenal are clearly towards the Barcelona end, their approach personified by tiny technicians like Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri rather than Stoke's towering colossuses. Certainly, the Premier League's most notable clash of styles has generated no end of bad blood in recent seasons. While neither side held a press conference prior to this fixture, helping to defuse any potential row, the residual resentment generated by Wenger's characterisation of Stoke as a "rugby" team at the start of the season, and Pulis' subsequent decision to write a letter of complaint to the FA and the Premier League, has not abated to any significant degree. That much was evident when a large banner emblazoned with 'One Aaron Ramsey' hung from the North Bank, while Shawcross' every touch was then met with a chorus of boos from the home fans.
But such antagonism did not initially translate to the pitch in a first half that grew quiet following an early explosion of action that left Stoke, in Pulis' own words, "like rabbits in headlights". As Walcott rattled the post inside two minutes when collecting a pass from Fabregas that bisected the Stoke defence, Rory Delap quickly exercised his dangerous long throw. However, it was instead Arsenal who unexpectedly profited from an early aerial bombardment.
The Gunners have seemingly not scored with any regularity from corners since the days of Tony Adams and Steve Bould, but Wilshere's set-piece caused havoc in the Stoke box, and when Bendtner calmly cushioned the ball back across goal, Sebastien Squillaci was in space to head home from close range. It was a moment to savour for a player who has been under some scrutiny of late, and the relief was clear in his face.
After 14 minutes, though, Fabregas' own visage was a picture of frustration as he was forced off due to injury. He had spoken in the match programme of how he wished to be the first Spaniard to lift a major trophy as a captain in England, but further tests on his hamstring will be required before his availability for Sunday's Carling Cup final can be assessed. "He was very upset," Wenger said. "I am as well. It is strange it happens early in the game but we have to face it".
Andrei Arshavin was introduced, pushing Samir Nasri into a central role, but the loss of Fabregas seemed to disrupt Arsenal's momentum. Stoke proved hard to break down, playing to stereotype by defending in crowds and playing the ball long, and lone striker John Carew went close before half-time as his stinging volley from Jonathan Walters' knock-down was palmed away by Wojciech Szczesny.
Hostilities resumed in more forceful fashion after the break, a succession of Stoke fouls drawing a furious reaction from the home supporters. Carew and then Delap pushed the borders of acceptability with challenges on Johan Djourou and Bacary Sagna, while Gael Clichy retaliated with a bad tackle on Jermaine Pennant that attracted a yellow card. Arsenal appeared to have lost their poise, a diagnosis confirmed when Robert Huth towered above the home defence from a Delap throw but headed over the bar with Szczesny stranded.
When Arsenal did break with purpose, and Arshavin avoided a lunging tackle from Shawcross, the Russian's square pass for Walcott was wasted by the forward as he betrayed a lack of composure and technique. Stoke, with massed ranks of bodies in their defensive third, had squeezed the fluency out of the home side and appeared capable of snatching a late goal.
Their impressive defensive endeavours going unappreciated by the majority of those in attendance, invective continued to rain down on the Stoke side, and despite Wenger's conciliatory approach in his own press conference, Pulis admitted: "You can't stop people's perception... It's very difficult shaking perception off our shoulders."
However, after a battling victory the likes of which have often eluded Arsenal, Wenger may well note that perceptions of his own side may be shifting slightly as their challenge for the Quadruple continues.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Alex Song. Imperious in the first half, his influence waned slightly after the break as Arsenal grew disjointed, but he won a worthy battle against Dean Whitehead and provided the platform for his team's victory.
ARSENAL VERDICT: A hard-fought win for a side that failed to regain its sparkle after the loss of Fabregas to injury. Song and Wilshere impressed in their deeper roles, but Arsenal lacked a touch of cohesion in the final third.
STOKE VERDICT: Pulis was unconcerned at 1-0 down and kept things tight in pursuit of a late equaliser. His gameplan was executed pretty well, though the Potters were unable to claim the goal they were seeking, despite a tense conclusion.
WENGER CORNERED: In his post-match press conference, the Arsenal manager appeared to call on football's governing bodies to negate the impact of Rory Delap's throws, saying: "I wonder if they should not change the rules a bit." However, when pressed on the matter, he then insisted he was merely being flippant, despite the serious tone to his voice.