Back to league competition for an important fixture against Stoke City at the Ems this evening. This match was originally scheduled for Saturday, December 18, 2010 but was postponed due to the pre-Christmas deep freeze that hit England. So two months on, we tried again, with our Arsenal squad in arguably better mental and physical shape than on the original fixture date – remember that this was supposed to be played just over a week prior to what turned out to be a watershed win over Chelsea, and at a time when we were coming off a disappointing loss at Old Trafford.
Although Robin and Kos were ruled out of this match yesterday, both have “have a chance” (Arsene’s words) to play in the Carling Cup final, so Tommy and Fabianski remain the major long-term absentees (not counting Diaby as he may be back before too much longer).
The associated subplot, of course, is Ramsey and Shawcross; the apparent personal dislike between Arsene and Pulis another one. There were no surprises regarding the reaction for Shawcross – now Stoke’s captain – every time he touched the ball; and I imagine that Cesc and many of our players will hear similar from the Brittania crowd on May 7th. My concern was that the players on both sides would look to settle some scores on the pitch. I hoped this wouldn’t be the case. What is done is done, Aaron is returning from his loan spell at Cardiff this weekend and we are in the thick of four competitions, our players focus should be on winning matches.
While I understand that bitterness and anger linger with many supporters, I have moved on from that particular incident…
With 9 of our 11 second string players featuring Sunday at Brisbane Road, a predominantly first team was expected. With Kos and Robin out, deputies would be required at the back and up front, the rest being our strongest eleven.
We lined up Szczesny, Clichy, JD, Squillaci, Sagna, Jack, Cesc, Song, Samir, Nik and Theo.
Our bench featured Al, Gibbs, Eboue, Denilson, Rosicky, Arshavin and Chamakh.
Almost straight from the kickoff, Cesc played Theo in and he smashed his shot off the inside of the post. We very nearly had an immediate goal, but we wouldn’t have to wait too long for the opener. On eight minutes, Nik earned us a corner. Jack delivered, and Nik helped it on the Squillaci, who buried his header for a 1-0 lead – Squil headed a similar goal for us earlier in the season, so this was a welcome return. Just a couple of minutes after, however, spirits sank as Cesc pulled up and then signaled to the bench.
Arshavin warmed up and then replaced the captain with less than a quarter of an hour gone. No immediate indication as to the nature of the injury was given, but it looked worryingly similar to previous instances when Cesc’s hammy flared up.
So Arshavin came on, and Samir moved into Cesc’s midfield position, with Arsh taking up a striker support role. The unexpected change clearly stalled our momentum, as we began to pass sideways, and with Stoke sitting back and looking to deny us time and space, our tempo dropped and we kept the ball without doing all that much with it.
Arshavin took a pop from distance, but did not trouble Begovic. Just past the half hour, Stoke broke out of their shell long enough for Carew to force Szczesny to make a fine diving save. Late in the half, Shawcross chopped Arshavin down, Samir wasting the free kick from a good position. Stoke finished the half with more of the ball, but were unable to trouble us, and it remained 1-0 at the interval.
Arsene made no further changes during the break, and as the teams came out for the second half, word came through that Cesc came off as a precaution, not an actual injury.
Here is hoping he will be fit for the Carling Cup final on Sunday – that is for later, at this moment, we still had a game to win. Stoke immediately put in a few rugged challenges, preventing us from finding an early rhythm. Former Arsenal player Pennant was sharp with his crossing this evening, and he put a peach in for Shawcross, who headed narrowly wide. Stoke continued with the fouls, Whitehead catching Sagna with his studs, no booking from referee Walton. Clichy was booked for a payback foul on Pennant a few minutes later, and Stoke conjured up their best opportunity so far, as Huth headed a Delap throw narrowly over the bar.
At this point, Stoke seemed on top, but we found another gear and started to create chances again, with Jack and Arshavin coming to the fore. Jack forced Begovic to make another save, and Arshavin fed Theo, who could only shoot wide. A few minutes later, Whitehead brought Theo down just outside the Stoke area and the latter stayed down in pain. After a few minutes treatment, he was brought off with what appeared to be an ankle injury, Denilson coming on in his place.
We resumed taking the game to Stoke and forced a corner, which Jack delivered to Nik, who headed over the bar. Stoke made their first change inside the final quarter of an hour, with Fuller replacing Walters in an attacking move. Arsene made our final change with just over ten minutes left, Chamakh replacing Nik. Walton finally got his card out, booking Wilson for hacking Chamakh down.
Arshavin was flagged offside after Jack nearly put him in. Right at 90 minutes, Denilson conceded a foul to give Stoke a free kick in another good position. Pennant put our collective hearts in our mouths with a fine delivery that rippled the side netting. That was Stoke’s proverbial last gasp; despite five minutes of stoppage time, we smartly kept the ball, took our time on a corner, attacked and ran the clock down for a 1-0 win, putting us a solitary point behind Man United.
So we survived another bruising encounter with Stoke. As of this typing, Arsene stated that Cesc has a hamstring problem which will be assessed tomorrow, at which point a proper estimate can be provided. Theo’s injury is characterized as an ankle sprain, and Arsene ruled him “definitely out” for Sunday. I am particularly gutted for Theo – the most recent player to score for Arsenal in a cup final.
Cesc has indicated via twitter, that he will do whatever it takes to lead the team out at Wembley on Sunday. Unfortunately, this is his hammy and that’s given him trouble before… We have to hope that he can play but if there is a doubt, I would not want to risk long-term injury with him. As important as it is for him to lead the side out in our first Cup final as Captain, I don’t want to see him risk longer-term damage for this. Although our task just got that much more difficult, losing Theo and having questions over Cesc, Robin and Kos for the final, we have the players to compensate and see Birmingham City off.
Going in, we knew tonight would be difficult; we were fully aware that Stoke would put us under pressure and try and rough us up. They did that, as expected, but we did well to stand our ground and not wilt. I expected them to bring it from the opening minute, but they were surprisingly passive in the first half.
As they stayed defensive and we passed rings around them for most of that period, I had a fair idea of what to expect in the second half, and Stoke came out immediately and got stuck in. They got several hefty challenges in – what we would characterize as “hard fouls” in basketball parlance. In other words, fouls and tackles intended to frustrate, intimidate, and put us off our stride. I am very pleased that Stoke accomplished none of these things – they had their best passage of play at the start of the second half, but we did not wilt and regained control around the hour mark.
Whitehead’s late, studs-up challenge on Sagna was the worst of their fouls, in my opinion. Walton did virtually nothing, so Clichy gave Pennant a taste of it. Our player was booked for the retaliatory nature of his challenge, but I am pleased that we stood up for each other and let Pulis and his players know that we would give it right back.
Arsene seemed ok with what transpired, injuries notwithstanding. He commented on the good spirit of the game, the commitment, strong challenges and “overall correct” play between the teams. I thought there was a spiteful undercurrent on the pitch, probably due to lingering hard feelings on both sides, but things thankfully did not get out of control. Besides the Whitehead’s challenges on Sagna and Theo, Carew’s late challenge and subsequent push on JD could have been a potential flash point but we kept our cool.
One player I am pleased for is the oft-maligned Sebastian Squillaci. I have been critical of him, but tonight I thought he had a very good overall match. He was Johnny-on-the-spot to covert Nik’s cross, giving us an early lead, and played solidly in defence. Fairly recently someone suggested to me that he plays better with JD than Kos; I kind of shrugged it off, but tonight I saw exactly what the person that mentioned this means. He also played well when partnered with the rook (Miquel) at Brisbane Road, so I am rapidly coming around to the idea that it may not be anything worse than he and Kos just not having an effective partnership. He did well against a difficult opponent this evening and if he can sustain this form – getting meaningful match minutes will help – then we should be in good shape at the center of defence for the remainder of this season.
Jack had an excellent match as well. Once our captain went off, it was he that pushed us forward often, got back to defend when necessary, kept things going, never panicked, and calmly saw the last few minutes out as Stoke made a late push. In the first minute of stoppage time, he did some fine work to win us a corner – an opportunity to take more time off the clock. His corner deliveries were excellent tonight, as well.
Even though we didn’t play particularly well collectively, so many others had solid games. This was a match where we had to stand up not allow Stoke to bully us. We did that admirably, and were rewarded with another three points. The win will be overshadowed by the injuries to Theo and Cesc – especially if our captain is sidelined for more than one or two matches. Unfortunately, that is part of the game.
We are almost in to March – during the past few seasons, we have more often than not had to field injury depleted sides for key matches. Even if the missing players are all out for more than a match or two, we are still in better shape than in previous years. We should be the best in the league at coping with this situation by now. Even if the news on the two players we lost today – as well as Robin and Kos – is not good, I think we have the quality, depth and strength to cope. But before we even worry about that, let’s wait for the prognosis on these players.
Sunday is the Carling Cup final. Whatever happens, after that match we will only have three competitions to worry about. Not that it will get any easier, but I think a trophy win can give us extra confidence for the remainder of the season.
No matter how one looks at it, there is still plenty of football remaining and an opportunity to have a really special season here!
Written by Oliver