Saturday 25 March 2017

Bruising night spoils Arsenal's crucial victory over Stoke

Arsenal 1
Stoke 0

Glenn Whelan of Stoke and Arsenal's Theo Walcott battle for possession. Photo: Getty Images
Glenn Whelan of Stoke and Arsenal's Theo Walcott battle for possession. Photo: Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

From the flair of Barcelona to the functionality of Stoke City, Arsenal continue to surmount all variety of obstacles in their quest for an unprecedented quadruple.

After the aesthetic quality of their Champions League victory over Barcelona last week, this was simply a demonstration of a new-found ability to win ugly. Arsenal now trail Manchester United by just one point at the top of the Premier League table.

The result, though, was marred by injuries to Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott. The Spaniard has suffered numerous hamstring problems over the past year and, for no obvious reason, he signalled that his evening would end after just 14 minutes. Fabregas was walking normally as he left the pitch, but Arsenal will anxiously await the result of a further assessment this morning.

Walcott's twisted left ankle looked far more serious and he has been ruled out of Sunday's Carling Cup final. Despite the suspicions of the Arsenal crowd, the offending incident was unfortunate rather than malicious as Walcott caught his foot in the turf.

Sunday will be the one-year anniversary of Aaron Ramsey's double-leg fracture and, on the first meeting between the two clubs since that dreadful incident, it was clear that neither set of fans had forgotten.

Ryan Shawcross, who inflicted the mistimed tackle, was jeered relentlessly.

Thankfully, the boos were interspersed by gasps as Arsenal began with some breathtaking football.

Jack Wilshere, picking up from where he had left off against Barcelona, immediately carried the ball into a dangerous position deep inside the Stoke half and cleverly picked out Fabregas. The Arsenal captain duly executed a defence-splitting pass for Walcott.

The angle was acute but Walcott's shot appeared precise as it thundered past Asmir Begovic's outstretched arm.

Walcott, though, had just curled his finish away from Begovic and, with what must have been its final rotation, the ball moved sufficiently to catch the inside of the post and rebound to safety.

The Arsenal pressure continued and, even after only eight minutes, there was a sense of inevitability when the first goal arrived.

Nicklas Bendtner, who had been given the chance to lead Arsenal's attack in the absence of Robin van Persie, diverted Wilshere's partially cleared corner back across the six-yard box for an unmarked Sebastien Squillaci to head past Begovic.

It was Squillaci's first Arsenal goal and, after a difficult settling-in period since his £3.2m summer move from Sevilla, clearly important for his confidence.

Arsenal's momentum, however, was checked by the departure of Fabregas.

Andrey Arshavin is no bad replacement but, with Samir Nasri shifting into the Fabregas role, the team lost their impetus.

Stoke also deserved credit for the way they got themselves back into the game and began to test Wojciech Szczesny.

The Arsenal goalkeeper was required to make one brilliant save when he dived, full length, to claw John Carew's volley to safety.

After the recent history between the clubs -- Wenger likened a Stoke goal earlier this season to "rugby" -- it was unsurprising that there should also be moments of controversy.

Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, became agitated when a challenge from Squillaci on Carew was ignored, but Jonathan Walters was then booked for impeding Walcott.

The temperature was raised when Rory Delap's studs-up tackle left Bacary Sagna in pain. It was dangerous but, in fairness to Delap, he did also connect with the ball.

Stoke, though, ultimately lacked sufficient quality to punish Arsenal's weaknesses. The chant of "1-0 to the football team" was harsh. Arsenal had joined Stoke in the trenches and, after 90 wounding minutes, had emerged with all three points. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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