Saturday 24 February 2018

Clinical Arsenal crush Stoke to take top-four race to the wire

Stoke City 1 Arsenal 4

Alexis Sanchez celebrates his goal. Photo: PA Wire
Alexis Sanchez celebrates his goal. Photo: PA Wire

Sam Wallace

The late, great push for fourth place is on for Arsene Wenger and while it is Liverpool who are in control, this dysfunctional Arsenal team have served notice again that they will push until the last game of the season next Sunday for the Champions League place they have a habit of securing.

Wenger gave no indication that he had seen a light aeroplane protest banner during the first half which proclaimed that "Wenger - Out means Out" in the skies above Stoke and by the end of the evening he had a convincing win over a difficult enemy. Arsenal are within a point of fourth place; Liverpool play West Ham today.

Olivier Giroud was Arsenal's hero at Stoke, scoring a brace. Photo: PA News
Olivier Giroud was Arsenal's hero at Stoke, scoring a brace. Photo: PA News

There was what looked like an injury to Alexis Sanchez, scorer of Arsenal's third goal and a key player, but judging by his sunny demeanour on the bench his withdrawal was just a precautionary measure. There were two more goals for Olivier Giroud and another from Mesut Ozil, all of them ruthlessly taken, and the promise of many more against Sunderland at the Emirates on Tuesday.

It could well go down to the last day when Arsenal visit Everton and Liverpool host Middlesbrough. Wenger's teams have often been better once the pressure is off, and having given up hope they now seem to be rediscovering it.

This was another worrying afternoon for Mark Hughes, whose team have only beaten Boro and Hull since the start of March. They were briefly thrust back into the game when the evergreen Peter Crouch came on as a substitute and headed in from Marko Arnautovic's cross but Arsenal's response was impressive.

Arsenal made most of the early running and the goal they scored with four minutes of the first half remaining was painfully simple. Stoke striker Mame Diouf failed to hold the ball up and from there it went to Francis Coquelin and wide to Hector Bellerin, who often poses the biggest attacking threat for Arsenal when they are struggling to break a team down. His low cross was tapped home by Giroud.

Arsene Wenger has still got his eye on fourth spot.
Arsene Wenger has still got his eye on fourth spot.

It looked like it might be over for Stoke when Ozil scored the second five minutes after half-time, with the home side still flat and Arsenal picking them off easily. Sanchez had an age to look up while Ozil ran into the right channel of the area and was given the ball straight into his feet to chip over Jack Butland. The finish was a perfect stroke of the ball over the goalkeeper, the kind that can momentarily excuse all of Ozil's other shortcomings.

As for Stoke, they were flat-lining. Enter Crouch, who always worries Wenger's team. He was the obvious choice with Arnautovic finding space down the left side where Rob Holding was struggling against him. Immediately, Stoke had four corners in a row and the pressure told.

It was from an Arnautovic cross that Crouch powered in at the near post to flick the ball past Petr Cech, who had come out but not been able to reach it. Stoke were back in the game for a few minutes and then, stretched, they were blown away by an Arsenal team who finished them off in style.

First of all Sanchez was played in down the right channel by Bellerin to strike a low shot through Ryan Shawcross' legs and beyond Butland's right hand. The Chilean came off almost immediately, having been complaining of a problem with his thigh for a few minutes before then.

His replacement Aaron Ramsey, booed by the Stoke fans, had a shot saved as Stoke's defensive game appeared to go to pieces. Minutes later Ramsey provided the cross from the right for Giroud to score his second of the match from close range, and the game was over.


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