Preview: Stoke City - Arsenal (By Graham Lister)

Jumat, 26 Februari 2010

If title hopefuls Arsenal really want to prove they don't have the soft underbelly they are often accused of having, there are few better - or tougher - places to do so than on Stoke City's ground, where the home team and their fans positively ooze the sort of team spirit that can wither opponents of a less committed disposition.

Unbeaten this year, comfortably positioned in mid-table some 11 points above the relegation zone, and through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup where they will attempt to ruffle Chelsea's feathers, Stoke City under Tony Pulis continue to defy the odds.

And they will relish the chance to knock Arsenal off course once again when the Gunners visit the Britannia Stadium knowing they must beat the Potters - and then win their remaining games - if they are to be more than the support act in this season's Premier League title race behind headliners Chelsea and Manchester United.

In the simplistic, sound-bite language of the tabloids, Stoke and Arsenal are polar opposites, the chalk and cheese of the Premier League. Meetings between the two teams are couched by the media in terms of artisans v artists, cloggers v culture club, Route One meets Route 66.

Yet things are rarely that straightforward. Only this week, after they overcame Manchester City with some brio, Stoke earned unaccustomed plaudits for their attacking flair. Ryan Shawcross stressed the team's creativity and panache, and even Arsene Wenger acknowledged that the Potters have added several positive dimensions to their game since winning promotion to the top-flight in 2008. There was certainly both guile and style about their first and third goals against the Citizens, scored by Dave Kitson and Tuncay Sanli, respectively.

Nevertheless, few would claim that Stoke don't thrive on the physical aspects of any tactical battle; robust and direct were words seemingly coined for them. Their trademark second goal on Wednesday, a prodigiously long throw by Rory Delap headed into a net vacated by the onrushing, unnerved Shay Given, epitomised Pulis's team.

Arsenal will know exactly how Given and his defenders felt. They have been sucker-punched by the same tactic at the Britannia themselves, on each of their two previous visits. Yet knowing what is coming your way and countering it effectively appear to be two rather different things.

The Gunners were beaten 2-1 by Stoke in the corresponding fixture last season, while last month they succumbed 3-1 to an impressive Potters' performance in the FA Cup. Admittedly the Arsenal team for that recent cup tie was sprinkled with inexperience in the form of Craig Eastmond, Francis Coquelin and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas; but they know they face a stern physical and psychological test on Saturday in an intimidating arena.

It is a test they can't afford to fail. Stoke have only lost three times at home this season, and two of those were against Chelsea and Manchester United, who both had to dig deep to earn the points. A victory for Arsenal could take Arsene Wenger's side back to within two points of Manchester United and give them the confidence of a third straight win in the league. Defeat will leave them more concerned about fending off the teams below them than catching the two above.

It certainly won't be easy. Stoke are one of only two clubs yet to suffer a Premier League defeat during 2010 (Aston Villa are the other), and they are looking to extend an 11-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

Indeed, if they avoid defeat on Saturday it will be the Potters' best run in the top-flight for nearly 36 years. And it is 28 years since the Gunners last won a league match on Stoke turf, where they go hoping to avoid a fifth straight league defeat.



24 Feb (FA Cup) v Man City (H) WON 3-1 (aet)
20 Feb (Premier League) v Portsmouth (A) WON 2-1
16 Feb (Premier League) v Man City (H) DREW 1-1
13 Feb (FA Cup) v Man City (A) DREW 1-1
09 Feb (Premier League) v Wigan Ath (A) DREW 1-1
06 Feb (Premier League) v Blackburn (H) WON 3-0


20 Feb (Premier League) v Sunderland (H) WON 2-0
17 Feb (Champions League) v Porto (A) LOST 1-2
10 Feb (Premier League) v Liverpool (H) WON 1-0
07 Feb (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 0-2
31 Jan (Premier League) v Man Utd (H) LOST 1-3
27 Jan (Premier League) v Aston Villa (A) DREW 0-0



Winger Matthew Etherington, who excelled against Arsenal in the recent FA Cup tie, has an outside chance of playing after returning to light training following a knee injury.

Defenders Abdoulaye Faye and Andy Wilkinson are back after serving suspensions bans, which probably means that Dean Whitehead will revert to midfield after playing at right-back against Manchester City.

Danny Higginbotham is unlikely to feature because of a back injury.

Last starting XI (v Man City): Sorensen, Whitehead, Shawcross, Huth, Collins, Lawrence (Pugh 72), Whelan, Diao (Sanli 54), Delap, Sidibe (Kitson 74), Fuller. Subs not used: Simonsen, Davies, Faye, Beattie.


Striker Eduardo (hamstring) has resumed training and his fitness will be assessed before Arsene Wenger makes a decision; but Andrey Arshavin is still out with a hamstring problem.

So too is central defender William Gallas (calf), which means that Sol Campbell or Mikael Silvestre will be paired alongside Thomas Vermaelen in the middle of the back-line.

Abou Diaby & Djourou (both knee), Kieran Gibbs (foot), Fran Merida and Robin van Persie (both ankle) remain unavailable.

Last starting XI (v Sunderland): Almunia, Eboue (Denilson 89), Silvestre, Vermaelen, Clichy, Song, Walcott (Sagna 78), Fabregas, Ramsey, Nasri (Rosicky 72), Bendtner. Subs not used: Fabianski, Traore, Campbell, Vela.



Manager Tony Pulis reckons striker Dave Kitson has "come back from the wilderness", grabbing his chance in Stoke's last two games after not having featured following his two-month loan spell at Middlesbrough. Kitson, 30, had failed to score in his first 18 games for the Potters, and was even loaned back to Reading, who'd sold him to Stoke for £5.5 million in summer 2008. But he has notched seven goals so far this term, including three while on loan to Boro and the opener in midweek. As a Tottenham Hotspur fan, he'll be particularly happy to inflict damage on their north London rivals Arsenal.

However, the Gunners are likely to be even more concerned about trying to deal with the long throws speared in by Rory Delap. His delivery set-up Stoke's top scorer Ricardo Fuller for the opening goal just 70 seconds in to last month's FA Cup tie, and the 33-year-old Republic of Ireland international - born in Sutton Coldfield and with spells at Carlisle United, Derby County, Southampton and Sunderland on his CV before he became a cult hero at Stoke - also provided the distinctive assists for both goals in last season's home win against the Gunners.


Arsene Wenger's side have not been endowed with goalkeeping excellence this season, so the Frenchman will be looking for a performance of greater composure and assurance from Manuel Almunia, who is expected to start. The Spaniard will need to be dominant and decisive in his area, especially when throws and corners fly in on vicious trajectories. Wenger was apparently interested in signing Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen in January, so a comparison between the two shop-stoppers will be instructive. Given that less than total confidence in the man behind them is cited as a factor in the apparent nervousness of Arsenal's defence, it is time Almunia took command of his gloves.

Further forward, if he plays, Theo Walcott also has plenty to prove. He has pace to burn, and certainly enough to unsettle a Stoke defence over-stocked with centre-halves; but Walcott has been singularly unconvincing in this injury-ravaged season when it comes to his final ball. Whether crossing or shooting - and choosing the right option is the critical first step - the England World Cup hopeful must start delivering.


It is no exaggeration to bill this game as Arsenal's toughest assignment among their remaining fixtures. If they can stand up and be counted against whatever Stoke throw at them; if they can tackle both the atmosphere and their opponents; if they can out-muscle, out-pass and out-think Stoke, then they will stand an excellent chance of out-scoring them too. But it won't be easy.

Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal

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