Flattered Arsenal take confidence from budding double act
Arsenal 3 Stoke City 0
Empty seats, half-time boos, but, ultimately, still small signs that Arsenal are slowly establishing a new unity following the departure of Alexis Sanchez.
Not only did his replacement, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, score twice to set up a fourth consecutive win; he demonstrated a genuinely selfless side in allowing Alexandre Lacazette to complete an ultimately flattering scoreline from the penalty spot.
Aubameyang had taken an earlier penalty when Arsenal's two record signings were on the pitch but, rather than chase a first Premier League hat-trick, he happily handed Lacazette the opportunity to score what was only the French striker's second goal since the start of December.
"I knew it would be good for his confidence," explained Aubameyang, who, on top of his own clinical finishing and a new haircut that included the name of his recently deceased grandmother, had demonstrated a welcome wider awareness of the significance of Thursday's Europa League quarter-final against CSKA Moscow.
Aubameyang is ineligible for that competition but was clearly conscious of how the club's hopes will depend largely on Lacazette following his comeback from knee surgery.
Arsene Wenger was naturally delighted by Aubameyang's approach and, with Arsenal improving immeasurably after Lacazette's 61st-minute introduction, the seeds of a profitable future partnership may just have been sown.
"It shows the state of society when we are surprised that people are generous," said Wenger.
"It can only make our team stronger - they have a good understanding and can play together."
A late flurry, though, could also hardly disguise wider flaws and the ongoing general apathy amid tens of thousands of empty seats at the Emirates Stadium.
Stoke had earlier caused plenty of problems and, while Paul Lambert was adamant that his players deserved at least a point, results are now the bottom line and this was a big missed opportunity.
Wenger partially attributed another low crowd to Easter and the international break but he did also acknowledge the obvious cause of a Premier League season that has become an irrelevance.
The Europa League now offers both the only hope of silverware and last realistic opportunity of a Champions League place and he was certain that there will be a full stadium on Thursday. "They will be back - don't worry," said Wenger.
An air of indifference was reflected both in Wenger's team selection and the start to the game.
Arsenal were largely passing sideways and their pressing out of possession was half-hearted, with Xherdan Shaqiri soon afforded space to cut in from the right and shoot inches outside the top corner.
Arsenal did become increasingly dominant in possession but, with Danny Welbeck wastefully volleying their next chance wide, a lack of speed and urgency remained evident. Stoke sensed their chance and did almost take the lead when Shaqiri's curling corner swirled beyond everyone, including goalkeeper David Ospina, and on to the inside of the post.
It seemed to awaken Arsenal, and they did finish the match convincingly. A precise Mesut Ozil pass released Aubameyang but Jack Butland stood tall one-on-one to smother the attempted finish.
Calum Chambers also had an excellent chance from inside the six-yard box before Arsenal did then take the lead after Ozil went down following Bruno Martins Indi's tackle. Replays clearly showed that he had first played the ball before upending Ozil but referee Craig Pawson had no doubt and Aubameyang sent Butland the wrong way with his penalty.
An Ozil corner was then volleyed past Butland by Aubameyang before Badou Ndiaye needlessly shoved Lacazette and gave Pawson little alternative but to award a second penalty.
It offered Aubameyang the chance of a hat-trick but he seemed genuinely delighted for Lacazette to get a goal ahead of Thursday's crucial European tie. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)