Cech heroics underline Gunners' resolve
Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal
No team can win a league championship with an unreliable goalkeeper, but just as Arsenal's own aspirations were strengthened by Petr Cech at Stoke last night, they came up against an inspired Jack Butland, who denied them the chance to plant their flag firmly in the Premier League summit.
Cech's second-half heroics, most notably his 90th-minute save from Joselu's close-range strike after Aaron Ramsey had nodded a Jon Walters header off the line, secured the point which edged Arsenal into top spot, ahead of Leicester City on goal difference.
But had Butland not produced his own string of crucial saves earlier in the game, victory would have been Arsenal's - one which would have lifted them clear at the top following two testing away games, at Stoke and at Liverpool in midweek.
Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United have all left the Britannia Stadium on the end of hidings this season, but Arsenal more than earned their point and, in the title race, it should ultimately be viewed as a point gained rather than two points lost.
No matter when this game was to be played, it was always a fixture which would have had Arsene Wenger creasing his face and hoping to simply avoid the traumas that Stoke have inflicted on his team in recent years.
There is no logical reason for the intensity of the rivalry between the two sides, no geographical proximity, but the ill-feeling from the broken leg suffered by Arsenal midfielder Ramsey following a challenge by Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross in February 2010 remains as deep as ever and the needle between the two clubs was evident before a ball had even been kicked.
Outside the Britannia Stadium, the front page of the latest edition of the The Oatcake, the Stoke fanzine, was a cartoon showing an angry Wenger and Stoke supporter, with Wenger saying, "They're bullying us, it's like rugby," only for the supporter to reply, "But we haven't even kicked off yet, Arsene".
Mark Hughes' Stoke are a different animal from the belligerent, uncompromising outfit built by Tony Pulis which gave Arsenal so many awful days here.
But the day Ramsey broke his leg was the last time that Arsenal headed back down the M6 with maximum points from the Britannia and the home supporters relished goading Wenger and his players about their woeful record here.
They sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," in response to Wenger's previous complaints about Stoke's style of play, while Ramsey was taunted with the more unsavoury chant of "Aaron Ramsey ... he walks with limp".
Classy it was not, but when Arsenal come to town, they have to deal with the full package, which is why this game could tell us more than any other about their prospects of ending the club's 12-year wait for the Premier League title.
The absence of Mesut Ozil with a foot injury was a blow to Arsenal's hopes, despite the obvious counter that Stoke away on the coldest day of the year was hardly the perfect game for the German.
Regardless of his reputation for struggling in some away games, Ozil was missed here, as was Alexis Sanchez, who fell just short of claiming a place on the bench following a hamstring injury.
To underline the new resolve within Wenger's squad, Arsenal began the game with eight outfield players not wearing gloves as opposed to five on the home side, so times certainly are a-changing.
Winning league titles is not about the glove count, however, and to hammer out a signal of intent, Arsenal had to improve their record of one win in seven league visits here.
But it was a scrappy game, one which hinted at both teams being more afraid to lose than ambitious to win. It descended into a battle of wills between Butland and Cech, with both goalkeepers showcasing their quality and importance to their teams.
After Stoke midfielder Ibrahim Afellay shot wide from 20 yards with the first opening of the game on 20 minutes, Butland sprung into action with two fine saves.
The England goalkeeper's first save came a minute after Afellay's miss, when he denied Olivier Giroud with a commanding block after Joel Campbell's precise pass had released the forward.
Nine minutes later, Butland produced another crucial save when he tipped over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's strike from the edge of the area.
Stoke responded to Arsenal's upsurge by taking a grip of the midfield and they then created two good chances, with Joselu forcing a save from Cech with a close-range header before Bojan curled a right-foot shot wide from 18 yards.
Neither team possessed a true cutting edge, though, and the 'keepers remained on top, with Butland once again frustrating Giroud with a fine save low to his right two minutes into the second half.
Cech then began to show why he could be the goalkeeper to win the title for Arsenal by producing back-to-back saves on 56 minutes.
The former Chelsea goalkeeper could only parry Joselu's initial shot, but he reacted brilliantly to keep out Bojan's effort from the rebound.
Cech denied Joselu again 10 minutes later by pushing the Spaniard's low shot away for a corner as Stoke began to build a head of steam.
The prospects of a breakthrough goal appeared to plunge with the temperature as the clock ticked down.
Campbell shot high and wide on 85 minutes, but the 90th-minute scramble in the Arsenal penalty area was the moment which could have seen the game turn on its head.
Walters had been allowed to jump freely to connect with a corner at the near post, but Ramsey was well placed to head the ball away.
As it dropped to Joselu in the six-yard box, Cech stuck out a leg to block the shot and save his team.
Little moments like that can often be decisive in the final reckoning. (© Independent News Service)