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Stoke City 3 Arsenal 1: match report

No dream debut for Sol Campbell (second time round) and no FA Cup for Arsenal this season (fifth time round).

Instead Stoke went potty in the Potteries with two goals from a rampaging Ricardo Fuller - someone certainly fed him raw meat yesterday morning - against an Arsenal defence which creaked with a chronic case of arthritis in its centre and some callow naïvety on its flanks.

This was, for Arsène Wenger, a curious affair. Against Stoke City, a club not noted for anything short of blood, guts and thunder at home, he fielded what was approaching a Carling Cup line-up and then threw Cesc Fabregas into the heart of it.

Did he really want the likes of Dean Whitehead and Glenn Whelan snapping at the heels of his most important player when there are vital league and European games to come?

Wenger’s priorities, however, were crystal clear. He smells the possibility of greater glory in this campaign. The FA Cup isn’t part of that story, even if Campbell, afterwards, lamented that there’s “nothing like winning” this competition while expressing satisfaction at his own performance.

The Arsenal manager, meanwhile, reeled off the names of Thomas Vermaelen, Gaël Clichy and Bacary Sagna, claiming they were unfit - but will be ready for Aston Villa on Wednesday - and stated that there were 10 injuries in all.

“I didn’t have much choice,” he said in defending his line-up, which included the likes of 19-year-old Francis Coquelin, who had a traumatic afternoon.

“If you look at our schedule it is very simple. But if you rotate and you don’t win, then it’s your fault.” So the manager fessed up - while mindful that trying to challenge on all fronts had done for Arsenal last season.

“It was a game that was more physical than technical,” he added. “Some of our players were too young to cope.”

They were indeed. For the likes of Coquelin, Craig Eastmond and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas it was all a bit too much. Certainly also an experience to remember - although not one to savour.

Indeed it was remarkable, given the circumstances, that Arsenal stayed in the contest for as long as they did.

Wenger defended 35-year-old Campbell, talking about his impressive fitness given that he had not played for five months - since his one and only appearance for Notts County away to Morecambe in League Two.

That ended in defeat also and while it has always been true that Campbell, more than most, needs games to regain fitness, he struggled to contain Fuller and his powerful strike partner Mamady Sidibé. It didn’t help that in Mikaël Silvestre he had a central defensive partner who floundered far more.

Stoke manager Tony Pulis charged his team with his usual formula. They condensed the play, got in Arsenal’s faces, moved it forward quickly and capitalised on those Rory Delap long throws.

It took precisely 68 seconds for that bullet to hit its mark. The midfielder hurled the ball in and, inexplicably, Fuller was unmarked. Lukasz Fabianski hesitated and the striker beat him to the ball to head into the net.

It was telling that, after that moment, it was Campbell who was detailed to deal with Fuller. But the damage was already done.

Arsenal were stunned. Pole-axed. And they continued to reel. Fuller easily beat Armand Traoré and cut the ball back for Sidibé, who miscued before, again, the Jamaican tricked into the penalty area. He was caught by Silvestre, tried to stay on his feet but eventually stumbled over.

Referee Martin Atkinson, wrongly, didn’t award a penalty and then stoked Stoke’s anger further by punishing Whitehead for handball.

It seemed a harsh decision, the ball brushing against the player, and it came on the corner of the penalty area. Fabregas rolled the free-kick square to Denilson, who struck a low first-time shot that deflected off the diving Whitehead, and then Danny Collins, to beat Thomas Sorensen.

It rocked Stoke and rallied Arsenal, marshalled superbly by Fabregas. But that soon passed. Still, Stoke didn’t score and Wenger threw on Andrei Arshavin, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey. Clearly he wanted to avoid a replay? “I did,” he said with a rueful smile, “and it worked”. But not the way he intended.

Just as the home supporters started to become apprehensive, Stoke struck. Sidibé barrelled down the right, beating Traoré, and crossed; Fuller stole in, with Campbell floundering, to head neatly beyond Fabianski.

Suddenly, Arsenal panicked. They charged forward, but were caught again. This time Matthew Etherington darted down the left and Whitehead side-footed home his precise centre. It killed the contest.

“They were stronger than us and we were exposed in the fight,” Wenger admitted. What did Pulis think of that? “It’s a compliment,” he said, clearly ignoring any invitation to get into a spat. “That is enough for me.” It was indeed.

© Telegraph.co.uk