Ramsey blow inspires late Arsenal rally
STOKE CITY 1
Arsenal gained the victory they needed to take full advantage of Chelsea's defeat earlier in the day, and move to within three points of the league leaders, but their celebrations were muted after a serious injury sustained by Aaron Ramsey, who was carried off after an incident that evoked horrible memories of Eduardo's compound fracture at Birmingham in 2008.
It was a toss-up which side came into the game with higher morale -- Stoke unbeaten in 2010 or Arsenal, who had thrust themselves back into title contention with successive victories.
Tony Pulis came down on the side of boldness, recalling Abdou Faye and Andy Wilkinson in defence after suspension in the strongest available line-up.
Injuries denied Arsenal important players in Andrei Arshavin, William Gallas, Robin van Persie and Abou Diaby, creating a starting place for Sol Campbell but not for Theo Walcott, who was again on the bench, as was Eduardo, who is still short of match fitness.
One would have thought they must have practised ways of countering Rory Delap's threat all week, but if they had, it was to no avail. Just seven minutes had elapsed when Delap hurled the ball in from the right and Ryan Shawcross got to it ahead of Bacary Sanga, redirecting it to the far post, where Danny Pugh headed home at perfunctory range. How the home crowd loved that, taunting Arsene Wenger, who has been critical of Stoke's methods, with choruses of: "We only score from our throw-ins."
Pulis won't apologise for any of that of course, nor does he need to, having devised an uncommonly effective use of limited resources. The goal gave his team a lift, and the initiative, putting Arsenal on the back foot, and the game was 25 minutes old before Cesc Fabregas produced their first strike at goal, from distance.
It met with no success, but it did spark Arsenal into action, and after 31 minutes they drew level, Nicklas Bendtner bisecting the centre-halves to get to Fabregas' right-wing cross and score with a towering header from 10 yards.
Thomas Sorensen was left with no chance, the ball beating him high to his left.
Arsenal thought they should have had a penalty four minutes into the second half when Ramsey, after receiving a short through pass from Fabregas, toppled 12 yards out under Faye's challenge. The referee concluded, not unreasonably, that the defender had hustled for possession legitimately, and that the Welshman had fallen unnecessarily.
After Stoke's assertive start, the initiative had changed sides, with Fabregas increasingly influential, and just short of the hour mark Sorensen was happy to touch over a Eboue's thunderous drive from the edge of the area. Arsenal's economical, progressive passing was testing the stamina of the opponents who had battled for two hours in the Cup replay and Danny Collins was introduced from the bench on the hour.
Stoke still had their moments, notably when Manuel Almunia dropped another exocet from Delap, and the match was boiling towards an intriguing climax when the appetite for it was dulled by Ramsey's horrible injury. Such was its seriousness that at least two players were ill on the pitch, and it was five minutes before the young midfielder could be carried off on a stretcher, to be replaced by Tomas Rosicky.
Inevitably, the atmosphere changed -- and not for the better. The Arsenal fans called the opposition "scum", while the home crowd lionised Shawcross by chanting his name. Shawcross was sent off for the challenge, and left the pitch visibly sickened by what he had done. To their credit, Arsenal recovered from the shock to score twice at the death, with a penalty from Fabregas and a tap-in from Thomas Vermaelen.
Stoke were consigned to their first defeat in 12 games when a handball by Pugh allowed Fabregas to score from the spot in the 89th minute and Sorensen's failure to hold Rosicky's shot enabled Vermaelen to make it 3-1 in added time.