Saturday, March 1, 2014

Stoke City 1 - Arsenal 0

Playing at Stoke is always an adventure for the Gunners. They have not won in their last three visits to The Britannia Stadium, with a loss and two draws. Although they often don't come away from Stoke with many points, they do often come away with substantial injuries, as Stoke is one of those teams that not only play hard but have a tendency to make dangerous tackles. Last season, Stoke came last on the Premier League's "fair play" table (see here). Gunners fans still recall Ryan Shawcross's horror tackle on Aaron Ramsey a few years ago that sidelined the young midfielder for more than a year and threatened his entire career. So far this season, Stoke are again league leaders in yellow cards.

Not surprisingly, given the history of this match, Arsene Wenger introduced a starting line-up with a little extra steel in it Rosicky (a.k.a., the Energizer Bunny) and Podolski (in place of the fit again Mesut Ozil) on the wings supporting Giroud. Of course, Jack Wilshire is always ready to mix things up. And Santi Cazorla was in the line-up to add a necessary touch of creativity. But the absence of Flamini from such a physical match was puzzling (not that Arteta played poorly).

As expected, the Stoke defense pressed high up the pitch and hard. And it wasn't long before the bad tackles began to pile up. Glenn Whelan's slide with a raised boot into the leg of Olivier Giroud was only the most obvious example. Neither side was able to get a strong offensive flow going during the first half. Few really good chances were created, at least until the last five minutes of the half. Perhaps the best opporunity fell to Stoke, when Shawcross found an on-rushing Glenn Whelan at the top of the box. Whelan hit it first time and forced Szczesny to make a strong arm save. Only a minute later, Arsenal had their best chance of the half, when Santi Cazorla force the Stoke goalie into a save, though he might have had a better option passing to a wide open Lukas Podolski on the wing. The first half ended scoreless.

The second half began with both sides probing for early scoring opportunities. It seemed as if a goal would come from somewhere before too long, Stoke's Peter Crouch really should have scored off a beautiful free kick from Ryan Shawcross. The ball was perfectly placed for an easy header into the back of the net, but Crouch inexplicably tried to take the ball down with his foot. Later, in the 66th minute, Arsenal were let off the hook again, after a corner kick pinballed around the Arsenal penalty area before being knocked over the end line by a Stoke player.

Generally speaking, it's not a good policy for teams at the bottom of the table to let a top side like Arsenal off the hook. Had Stoke gone up 1-0, they might well have been able to hunker down on defense and protect the lead. As it was, the game was still scoreless, with less than half an hour to go.

It was at that point in the match that Arsene Wenger decided to insert Mesut Ozil into the match, replacing Lukas Podolski. Ten minutes late, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Thomas Rosicky, who, as usual, had run his legs off. Oxlade-Chamberlain had bearly stepped on to the field, when Arsenal gave up a soft penalty. Laurent Koscielny clearly blocked a pass at the edge of the box with a needlessly raised hand - a very bad place to give up a penalty, as Stoke was not in a dangerous scoring position. In any case, it was a penalty, and Jonathan Walters converted it. Stoke were up 1-0. And Arsenal had it all to do against a very tough defensive team.

The game announcer said, "Someone needs to step forward for Arsenal," and Mesut Ozil might have been on his mind. Arsene Wenger apparently thought he meant young Yaya Sanogo, who came on to replace the ineffective Jack Wilshire. Arsenal were now playing with two out-and-out strikers, an unusual sight, trying to salvage at least a point in the last ten minutes of the match.

In the 83d minute, Mesut Ozil came close to tying the game on a strong shot from the left flank that went just wide of the far post. But Begavic might have had it covered, if it had come inside the post. A couple of minutes later, Arsenal had a free kick from just outside the penalty area right in the middle of the field. Carzorla tapped the ball to Arteta, whose shot could not evade Stoke's fast charging wall.

Arsenal kept pressing, as Stoke's defense dropped farther and farther back, content to await a chance to counterattack for a second goal to put the game away. As it turned out, they did not need the second goal. In the final 90 seconds of stoppage time, Arsenal created their best chance of the game. A long, perfectly weighted pass found Oxlade-Chamberlain steaming down the right wing. He took the ball and squared it perfectly to an unmarked Sanogo in the box, who couldn't even force the goalie into a save. In American football, he would have scored three points for a field goal right through the uprights. And that was that.

None of the other big teams have been able to win at the Britannia Stadium so far this season. Chelsea and Man U both lost there; and Man City mustered only a draw. But Arsenal will take scant consolation from that fact, or from the fact that they played damn hard. Given their very tough fixture schedule on the run-in to the end of the season, they simply could not afford to drop 3 points in this fixture.

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