Date: 24th February 2011 at 12:02pm
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“Night of destiny for your lot” said the security guard as I wheeled out of the office just before 5pm. Too right. Whilst there is very little love lost between Arsenal and Stoke of late, and whilst it was tempting to get caught up in the Shawcross theatre, the over riding thing was to take the three points and leave United with something to think about as they approach games with Chelsea and Liverpool. United play those games before we re-engage the league schedule. Pre match was spent firming up Sunday lunch plans for Wembley (nobody has been brave enough to suggest concrete post match plans) and revisiting just how much we all utterly despise Tony Pulis. Disappointingly, there were large numbers of empty seats visible at kick off; probably vacated by the same people that have whinged about not being able to get Carling Cup Final tickets.

Though the crowd seemed sleepy and cumbersome, the team started the game very quickly and should have been ahead within 90 seconds. Wilshere`s probing pass found Fabregas on the edge of Stoke`s box, the captain turned a perceptive ball to Walcott, who was on the shoulder of the last defender. His angled shot beat Begovic all ends up but cannoned off the inside of the post. Fabregas was at the hub of Arsenal`s next opportunity as they piled the pressure on a beleaguered Stoke, clipping a ball into Bendtner, who nodded the ball back down to Walcott, but he miscued his volley. Stoke were finding it difficult to keep up with Arsenal`s guile and pace. Danny Pugh tried to see an over hit Sagna pass out for a corner, Bendtner had other ideas and grappled for the ball, winning a corner. Wilshere`s corner was flicked on to Bendtner at the back post; he had the presence of mind to chest trap the ball before sending it back into the six yard area where Sebastien Squillaci stooped to head home from close range. It was another clever assist from Bendtner following his cross on Sunday- it`s an area of his game he`s really developed. I think 12-18 months ago, both of his recent assists would have been shots. I was pleased for Squillaci too; recent grumblings suggest he was next in line for the Arsenal supporters` official voodoo doll. (With Almunia and Denilson on the bench, we need one individual to blame damn it!)

With Stoke`s appalling away record and Arsenal`s lightning start, my mind started to wander toward the prospect of smashing these insufferable oafs to the tune of four or five nil. Unfortunately, the team and the fans experienced something of a large injection of diazepam when Fabregas limped off injured. With a Final on Sunday and the Nou Camp on the horizon, brows furrowed and hearts bled. Nobody has come close to putting as much into this Arsenal team as Cesc Fabregas over the last five years, if he can`t lead this team out at Wembley on Sunday, then it really will confirm there is no justice in the world. (Though to be fair, the situations in Bahrain, Egypt and Libya prove that already to a far more serious extent). Fingers crossed, but I`m afraid I don`t have a good feeling about this one. Arshavin came on with Nasri moving back into Fabregas` role. Arshavin and Nasri are players of the highest quality, but Cesc is the one player in this team for whom there is just no replacement. The stadium died and so too did the team, enjoying plenty of possession but doing very little with it. Stoke briefly awoke the stadium from its slumber when Danny Pugh`s long ball was chested down by John Walters, Carew hit a stinging volley from the edge of the area which was well saved by Szczesny. A rather routine save, but one that didn`t prevent the Red Section serenading him with a chorus of “Arsenal`s number 1, Arsenal`s, Arsenal`s number 1.”

The second half became a much altered affair; one imagines there was plenty of grunting, leg humping and faeces flinging in the Stoke dressing room at half time, as they raised the tempo of their pressing game. Rory Delap`s unseemly lunge at Sagna saw a reprisal of the Stoke we know and loathe, (the referee did not even award a foul, but booked Clichy for his only foul of the game on Pennant. Clichy`s tackle warranted a yellow card, but not if Delap`s didn`t. Another referee that failed to grasp very basic rules). Stoke sent a warning sign in the opening blows of the half, Delap deceived the Arsenal rearguard by shaping for the long throw into the box, but instead released Pennant down the right. (At this point there was an ironic cheer as people assumed Delap had messed up his throw. Some people just don`t watch games do they?) Pennant tossed a cross into the box which was met with a goal bound header from Ryan Shawcross of all people, but Gael Clichy unwittingly got his head in the way and deflected the effort wide.

The visitors began to play to their obvious strengths, with Carew proving a handful- but one admirably dealt with by Djourou and Squillaci. Perhaps inevitably, it was from one of Rory Delap`s long throws that the Potters garnered their best chance. It is utterly astounding that Delap has never been booked for time wasting given the gargantuan amount of time he takes. If any other player took that long over a throw in, a caution would surely be administered, so why is Delap immune? To illustrate the point, Peter Walton ushered Bendtner off the pitch when he was substituted when he was already jogging. Walton visibly made a point of stopping his watch and hurrying him off when he was already leaving the pitch at running pace. Why is Delap not issued the same sort of missive when he must have eaten up around ten minutes of the match shaping up for throw ins? Have match officials really become this gullible and duped?

In any case, whilst Arsenal largely dealt with the sizeable threat of Delap`s throws, one slipped through the net when Stoke`s top scorer Robert Huth made a long distance run and complimentary leap, rising above Szczesny and Squillaci, but sending his header over the bar. The home side seemed to heed the warning, but still suffered a creative shortfall without van Persie and Fabregas. Wilshere and Arshavin tried to get the cogs moving, Nasri played intelligently, but I really do think he does a lot more damage ten yards further forward as part of the front 3. Arshavin cut a ball back for Wilshere on the edge of the box; he took a cushioning touch before sending a left footed volley goalwards which was comfortably dealt with by Begovic. It was Arshavin again, using his guile and upper body strength to skip past a sliding tackle from Shawcross, he cut to the by line and pulled the ball back for Walcott. Walcott tried to open his body out and finish first time but badly miscued the finish. It was to be his last true involvement. Minutes later, he scampered past two Stoke defenders on the edge of the area, before Dean Whitehead caught him on the ankle. Walton, in his infinite wisdom, didn`t even award a free kick. As Walcott lay prone in the area; Walton signalled to frustrated Arsenal players that he had been shouldered off the ball. So how did he twist his ankle then Professor Science? Incidentally, that now means five Arsenal players have been stretchered off down the tunnel in our last five league meetings with Stoke.

Walcott is definitely out of the Carling Cup Final, which is a real blow as Ridgewell often struggles to deal with him. However, it would be an even bigger loss if he is not fit to travel to Catalonia. Barcelona are frightened stiff of Theo and alter their game plan to marshal him. In the wide open spaces of the Nou Camp, Fabregas through balls to Walcott would be our best outlet one would imagine. It is almost impossible to see us getting a desired result without the most potent attacking forces available to us for the game. Walcott is the only attacker that offers a threat in behind the defence, otherwise we can lack penetration with the others players at our disposal up front. It is difficult this morning not to worry that, once again, a promising season could be held over the barrel by the misfortune of injuries to key players at key times. But we`ll just have to get on with it.

Bendtner headed a Wilshere corner over the bar, but as the game drifted into the closing stages, it was clear we were going to have to grind this one out. And grind we did, Arsenal played with intelligence and the two centre halves stood up and were counted when Stoke raised their game. A Jermaine Pennant free kick briefly caused hearts to elevate to mouths when he ruffled the side netting. But Arsenal showed a mature streak once the board for 5 minutes injury time went up. They looked to keep the ball in midfield, rather than indulge the tendency the side has had in the recent past of sending 9 players forward and going hammer and tongs for another goal at the most inopportune and unnecessary moments. The final whistle was greeted with an audible sigh of relief as the points were safely secured, leaving us just one point off the pace at the summit of the Premiership. It was hardly a vintage Arsenal performance, but you cannot play champagne football every week. Hen those occasions arise, it is important to show solidity and discipline and that`s exactly what Arsenal did. Stoke pressed us and Carew and Fuller are a handful for any defence. But for their improved second half display, Stoke rarely worked Szczesny. Now we are left to assess the collateral cost of the win with injuries to key players. It could be time for some squad players to really stand and up be counted now.LD.

53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 18.SQUILLACI, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 4.FABREGAS© (23.Arshavin `14), 14.WALCOTT (15.Denilson `70), 8.NASRI, 52.BENDTNER (29.Chamakh `80). Unused: 1.Almunia, 7.Rosicky, 27.Eboue, 28.Gibbs.

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