The last mathematical chance of Arsenal winning the league finally ended yesterday, as they lost 3-1 away to Stoke City in the Premier League. In a game where strength, determination and concentration were going to be really important, the majority of Arsenal players failed to show those attributes. The fans really wanted a victory over a team which they have a genuine dislike for, but it's impossible to beat a team like Stoke if the defence doesn't play at their best.
There were a couple of changes from the team that beat Manchester United last week, as Kieran Gibbs and Andrey Arshavin came in for the injured duo of Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. The anticipated return of Thomas Vermaelen didn't happen, as he spent the game on the bench after Johan Djourou recovered from the knock he took last week.
The game started fairly well for Arsenal, as they had the vast majority of possession, but there was very little goal threat from them. The best early chance fell to captain Robin Van Persie, but he shot over the bar when Jack Wilshere played him in. Arsenal needed to utilise their wide players, but Theo Walcott was ineffectual, and Andrey Arshavin appeared disinterested at best. It meant everything went through the middle, but without the creative spark of Cesc Fabregas there were precious few opportunities created.
As the game progressed Stoke gradually began to venture over the halfway line, and they managed to score from their first real opportunity. Arshavin gave away a stupid free kick just beside the corner flag, but Arsenal set up to defend a free kick rather than a corner, which I felt was a mistake. When the ball was delivered by Jermaine Pennant, the Arsenal players took turns to make a mess of their roles, and Kenwyne Jones let the ball bounce off his chest and into the Arsenal goal.
First of all RVP missed his near post header to allow the ball into the goalmouth, and then Djourou failed to track Jones's run properly to give him the simple task of scoring from close in. It was a very familiar sight for Arsenal fans, as the opposition scored with their first attempt on goal, despite Arsenal dominating proceedings. I'm not sure who was making the defensive calls, but they got it wrong, as a man on the post would probably have kept the ball out in my opinion.
That first goal came after 28 minutes, and Arsenal's good approach play faded after it, but worse was to come in the 40th minute. A loose ball by Aaron Ramsey was pounced upon by Pennant, and Bacary Sagna ran away from him as he approached the Arsenal box, rather than close him down. Djourou came out to close him, but his 25 yard shot deflected off the Swiss players foot, and skewed up into the air over the despairing dive of Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal. I though Szczesny could have done better, as he seemed to get a lot of his hand to the ball, but it was by no means an easy save to make.
As half time approached Arsenal were lucky not to go in three goals behind when Jonathan Walters hit the bar, after skinning Sagna. Thankfully Arsenal were only two down at the break, and Arsene Wenger made a couple of changes, as he tried to breathe some life into the team. Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner came on for the ineffectual Arshavin and Aaron Ramsey, but Bendtner was played in a wide left role, and Chamakh is a pale shadow of the playerhe was before the turn of the year.
Early in the second half Stoke almost scored again, as Robert Huth got his head to a corner, but his effort went over the bar. In the aftermath he pulled Alex Song to the ground and ripped his shirt. Song took exception to this, and was lucky the referee didn't see him stick his elbow into Huth's face. Huth played no further part in the game, but I think his injury was picked up when he pulled Song to the ground, and Song landed on top of him. Arsenal were at least showing some fight, but it wasn't exactly the best way to do it.
Half way through the second half Wilshere went in very strongly on Pennant, and his momentum carried him through the ball and into the player. He had already gone in very aggressively on Dean Whitehead in the first half, and on another day those two challenges would have earned him a couple of yellow cards. Luckily for arsenal the referee only gave him one, and Pennant got a yellow card too for his reaction. I thought Andy Wilkinson should have followed them both into the book as well, as his follow up tackle on Wilshere was far from the best.
In the 73rd minute some good work by Bendtner set RVP up for what looked like a certain goal, but he somehow managed to miss from six yards. The keeper got a hand to it to put it out for a corner, but RVP simply had to score to give Arsenal a chance. Shortly after that Szczesny made a good save from Glenn Whelan to just about keep Arsenal in the game.
With 10 minutes left the boss replaced Song with Tomas Rosicky, as he looked to introduce some creativity to the team. Arsenal scored almost immediately, as Rosicky fed Bendtner, and he played the ball to RVP. He still had an awful lot to do at that stage, but he side stepped a Stoke player, before drilling the ball under the keeper with his right foot.
Arsenal had a chance to get something from a game which looked beyond them only a minute earlier, if they could continue to put pressure on Stoke. However, their propensity to self destruct came into play again, as Stoke scored less than a minute later. A hopeful shot from outside the Arsenal box looked to be no real danger, as Djourou put his leg out to clear it. His clearance was far too weak, and it went straight to Walters in the Arsenal box. He had the simple enough task of scoring from eight yards, and he made no mistake.
The game petered out after that third goal for Stoke, and the traveling Arsenal fans were left with the long journey home with no reward for their efforts of supporting their team. As usual they could be heard loud and clear on my TV, as they did all they could to support their team. They are a credit to the club, and I love hearing them in every single away match Arsenal play.
The game was so typical of Arsenal this season that it was frightening. There was some nice pretty football without enough end product, before the opponents scored from a set piece. Too many of the players just didn't give enough when it was needed, and the leadership on the pitch was almost non existent at times.
Later in the day Manchester United beat Chelsea to as good as tie up a record 19th league title, and Arsenal are now left to contemplate what might have been. This season has been blighted by points dropped when they should not have been, and those who think selling Cesc Fabregas will be good for the team should consider how many chances Arsenal actually created in their last two games without him. His ability to create chances is second to none, and without him Arsenal would be in a much worse league position this season.
He hasn't been at his greatest, but the fact he hasn't had a proper holiday since the summer of 2007 has a great deal to do with that. He needs a long break this summer, and hopefully he will come back fit and ready to show what he can do, as he approaches the peak of his career. With him and RVP in the team Arsenal have a chance against anybody, but they have to strengthen the squad this summer, or they will be no point in having players of their quality.
Arsenal have conceded less goals from open play than any other team in the Premier League this season, but the total they have conceded from set pieces is simply not good enough. The structure and organisation of their defensive game has to be dealt with this summer, and if that means bringing in a defensive coach then the boss has to do it. If this issue is not addressed then Arsenal will find themselves in a very similar situation next summer, and that is just not acceptable.
All that is left this season is to ensure Arsenal finish third ahead of Man City, and I think they will do so if they beat Aston Villa next Sunday afternoon. When Sky booked Arsenal as their main game on the second last Sunday of the season I'm sure they hoped Arsenal would still have a chance of winning the league, but they got it badly wrong. The only good news from the weekend for Arsenal was the arrival of St. Totteringham's Day on Saturday when they failed to win at home to relegation threatened Blackpool.
It's a scant consolation really, but there's little else to keep Arsenal fans happy at the moment. If they lose to Man City tomorrow night, the chances are they won't even qualify for next season's Europa League, and Arsenal fans can at least be happy in the knowledge they aren't Spurs fans.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game with thanks to 101greatgoals.
See You tomorrow.
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