Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Arsenal 1 Stoke 0 Injuries 2

If I had been told before this game that it would be won by a goal from a set piece, I'd have been worried.

As it turns out, I have to apologise for my typically rash assessment of Squillaci, who did not cost Arsenal any goals on this occasion, and scored the winner.

Eight minutes in, a corner reached the back post, where Bendtner chested down and knocked the ball into the goalmouth, and the French defender headed in his first league goal. Big credit goes to Bendtner who showed good composure and actually picked a player out where many would just smash the ball and hope for the best.

Before that, Walcott had threatened on three occasions. Very early on, Fabregas released him on the right of the area with a trademark slide rule pass, and the youngster beat Begovic with his cross shot but saw it rebound off the inside of the post and into the keeper's arms. He then volleyed well wide from Bendtner's knockdown, and then almost went through but snatched at his shot under pressure from both Huth and Pugh.

Arsenal had started very well but were then greeted with the now all-too-familiar sight of Cesc Fabregas trudging off to be substituted. It remains to be seen whether he has a chance of playing in Sunday's Carling Cup final. His removal here saw Arshavin come on to play in his usual position on the left of the front three, and Nasri drop back as chief playmaker. Arsenal lost momentum but Stoke offered little, other than a Carew effort from range which Sczcesny parried well, until the second half.

After the break there was more menace about Stoke. Delap wound up for a long through, instead sent it down the line to Pennant, and his cross found Shawcross, but the header deflected just wide for a corner. What an unpopular goal that would have been. Then another throw, this time from the left. Delap did go long. Sczcesny came out, but he and his defenders were beaten all ends up by Huth. His leap effectively gave him an open goal, but he couldn't direct the header downwards, and Arsenal escaped.

The best bit of play from Arsenal came when Nasri released Arshavin down the left. Shawcross came hurtling across in typically reckless fashion, and was left for dead by the Russian, who dinked it over the challenge, then squared across the area for Walcott, who fluffed his lines.

The Englishman's night got even worse when he twisted his ankle badly under a clumsy but innocent challenge by Whitehead. Walcott will miss the Carling Cup final and, even worse, probably the Barcelona game, where you feel Arsenal would have needed the benefit of his pace and directness.

As I predicted, injuries are biting as the games pile up. But here Arsenal were solid enough to see the game out. Pennant's free kick late on was as close as Stoke came, but the winger could only find the side netting with a shot that Sczcesny looked to have covered.

Overall, Arsenal were relatively poor, but it can only be a good sign that they can win in such circumstances. The early goal was, clearly, vital, more so than it seemed at the time, because after Fabregas's departure, the home side struggled to open Stoke up. Had the game remained 0-0 Stoke would have kept even more bodies back and Arsenal's search for a goal may have grown desperate. Instead, they could keep possession in the late stages, less nervous than they've been in the past with the new assurance Djourou's presence seems to have bred in the back line. One point now the gap to United, who have a game in hand, but now face three away games: Wigan, Chelsea and Liverpool... Maybe this season will see a title race after all.

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