Arsenal went into last night's Premier League game against Stoke RFC knowing they had to win to put real pressure on "Manure" ahead of a very tough run of games for the league leaders. Arsenal have had trouble beating Stoke RFC over the last few seasons, but never at home. On top of that Stoke had a poor away record so far this season with nine defeats in 13 games, and the signs were very positive for Arsenal.
Arsene Wenger played the team he was expected to play which meant Sebastien Squillaci and Nicklas Bendtner replaced the injured Lauren Koscielny and Robin Van Persie. It meant that Arsenal had their strongest team available to them on the pitch, but the best current striker in the Premier League was unfortunately not one of them.
Arsenal came out of the traps very quickly, and after just over a minute Cesc Fabregas played Theo Walcott in on the right hand side. His shot beat the keeper, but it hit the post and bounced back into his hands. Walcott had another couple of half chances early on, as Arsenal looked to settle the nerves of the fans with an early goal, but none of them went in.
Those fans didn't have to wait long for the breakthrough though, as Arsenal went 1-0 up in the eighth minute. Jack Wilshere was taking the corners from the right, as RVP wasn't playing and he swung a corner into the Stoke RFC box. The ball made it's way to Bendtner on the far side of the goal, and he poked it back into the six yard box. Squillaci was on hand to stoop and head the ball into the net, and Arsenal had the lead the players and fans wanted so badly.
Things looked like they were going very well for Arsenal at that stage, but that changed very soon afterwards. After less than 15 minutes Cesc pulled up with what has been reported as a hamstring injury, and there will be news on the extent of the injury later today. He tweeted last night that he will do everything he can to be able to lead Arsenal out in his first cup final as their captain, and I hope his wish comes true. Realistically though the chances of that happening are fairly slim, and if he is missing it will be a huge blow for Arsenal.
Cesc was yesterday again named as the player who creates most chances from open play out of any of the top five leagues in Europe. It shows how good he is, and how crucial it is to Arsenal that he plays as often as possible. If he can't play on Sunday it is absolutely vital that he returns for the league game at home to Sunderland on Saturday week. Hopefully Arsenal will get the chance in that game to make up for any of the slips that might come "Manure's" way in their next two games.
After Cesc's departureSamir Nasri moved into his central role, and Andrey Arshavin came on in Nasri's wide left role. The early drive seemed to disappear though, and Stoke RFC got themselves into the game a little more. Arsenal were still controlling the possession, but with Cesc gone their possession was not turned into chances on goal. Just over five minutes before half time Wojciech Szczesny made an excellent save to deny John Carew from a long range shot. It was the first real save he had to make, but it was very well made.
Early in the second half Stoke RFC came close through both Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth, but thankfully the Arsenal goal stayed intact. The killer instinct had completely disappeared from Arsenal's game at that stage, and I found myself counting the minutes until the final whistle. Mid-way through the half Arshavin did really well to get to the end line, and cut the ball back for Walcott. He opened his foot to try to slide the ball home, but he skewed it far wide as Huth closed him down.
That was to be his last significant contribution in the game, as only a couple of minutes later he was stretchered off with an ankle injury. He was in possession just outside the Stoke RFC box when he was challenged from behind by Dean Whitehead, and he went down in obvious pain. The referee, in his infinite wisdom, decided that a push and a kick from behind was not enough grounds for an Arsenal free kick, and he played on. Arsenal regained possession and put the ball out of play so Walcott could receive treatment. The sight of him being stretchered off was not a pleasant one, and he will definitely not be available for Sunday's Carling Cup final.
After that the chances were few and far between for the rest of the game. Nasri had a free kick which he put over the wall, but it went wide. At the other end Jermaine Pennant had a similar opportunity near the end, and he came a lot closer, but I thought Wojciech Szczesny had it covered all the way. The fourth official showed five minutes of added time, and the boss wasn't happy. Arsenal did their best to play keep ball during those five minutes, and Stoke RFC did their best to hoof the ball into the Arsenal box. With the very last attack they finally managed to get a head on the ball in the Arsenal area, but thankfully Szczesny caught the second ball. The referee blew for full time, and the relief was there for all to see.
The most important thing on the night was the three points, but they came at the cost of Walcott, and more than likely Cesc too. There is no definite timescale on either injury yet, but with RVP and Koscielny both out last night too it looks like Arsenal's recent good luck with injuries may be coming to an end. The chances are that both RVP and Koscielny will be available for Sunday, but Walcott definitely won't be, and Cesc probably won't be. Arsenal should still have a strong enough team to be able to beat Birmingham, but it will be a big blow for Cesc personally.
The best way to recover from such a blow would be for him to come back even stronger from his injury, and ensure that Arsenal keep competing in the other three competitions they are in this season. He should hopefully be available to play against Sunderland, Barcelona, and then "Manure" in the FA Cup. Those three game will be within a week of each other, and they will have a real say in how well Arsenal's season progresses.
Last night was hardly vintage thrilling football from Arsenal, but with all the injury problems they had they managed to get the victory in the style of a team genuinely challenging for the Premier League. I was impressed with Jack Wilshere yet again, as he looked to control the game in Cesc's absence. I thought Bendtner looked much better in a central role than he does on the right, and the central defensive pairing coped with almost everything Stoke RFC threw at them. At times Arsenal have lost focus in games, and ended up dropping points as a result, but last night they did everything they had to.
The three points were vitally important, and it means Arsenal are now breathing down the neck of the league leaders. It also means Arsenal are now seven points ahead of third placed Man City with 11 games to go. The Spuds are nine points behind Arsenal, and the arrival of St. Totteringham's day draws closer by the week. Both Chelsea and Liverpool are fighting for fourth place, and their home games against "Manure" now become of vital importance to both of those teams, and Arsenal as well.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from last night's game with thanks to 101greatgoals as always.
See You Tomorrow.