On the day that New Zealand won the rugby World Cup final it was fitting that Arsenal should get to play against the Premier League's very own rugby team. Stoke City play a brand of football that is particularly unappealing to the eye, but it has been effective for them since their promotion to the Premier League just over three years ago. Their previous three visits to Arsenal had all ended in defeat, and Arsenal were looking to win their sixth home game in a row in all competitions.
The big team news on the day was the inclusion of Marouane Chamakh at the expense of Robin Van Persie who was on the bench. Arsene Wenger had threatened to rest RVP, but nobody actually believed he would leave Arsenal's star player on the bench. Before yesterday's game RVP had managed 23 goals in 25 Premier League games in 2011.
The other changes from Wednesday's win over Marseille were the inclusions of Johan Djourou, Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho for Carl Jenkinson, Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin. Jenkinson had picked up an injury in that game, Rosicky was surely due a rest and Arshavin had played so badly he couldn't be included. There was still no place on the bench for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he will get his chance against Bolton Wanderers in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night.
I was a little worried to see Djourou at right back, but there were very few options for Wenger due to Arsenal's continuing injury problems. As it turned out Djourou did a pretty good job apart from a near fatal mix up with Wojciech Szczesny with the scores at 1-1 in the second half. It's tough to know who was at fault in that mix up, but thankfully Szczesny's footballing skills got him out of a tight spot.
Arsenal slowly got the upper hand in the first half and it was no surprise when Gervinho put them 1-0 up in the 27th minute. Aaron Ransey played an excellent ball over the too of the Stoke defence, and Gervinho was on hand to take it down and neatly slot it past the keeper. It was exactly what Arsenal needed, but unfortunately they failed to build on that lead.
Only seven minutes later Arsenal's fragility at set pieces was exposed yet again when Peter Crouch equalised for Stoke. He was given a very soft free kick after Laurent Koscielny challenged him for a header, and Crouch appeared not to actually challenge for the ball.
When the ball was floated into the Arsenal box nobody went with Ryan Shawcross, and when he put the ball back across goal there was panic in the Arsenal defence. Crouch eventually put the ball into the net from no more than six inches out to level the scoreline. It meant the teams went in at half time level at 1-1, and Arsenal would have to start again in the second half.
Midway through the second an ineffectual Chamakh was replaced by RVP, and Arshavin replaced Theo Walcott soon after that. It meant Arsenal's captain had twenty five minutes to try to get his team a win, and true to form he delivered. He scored two goals within 15 minutes of coming on to end Stoke's resistance, and earn Arsenal another precious three points.
Both of his goals were made by some excellent work from Gervinho, and I was delighted to see him starting to make a real impact. I was highly unimpressed with his efforts against Sunderland last week, but he showed exactly why Arsenal spent so much money on him last summer. His return of one goal and two assists from the game was no more than his man of the match performance deserved.
It's hard to over emphasise the importance of getting behind the opposing defence, and turning defenders around. Gervinho managed to get to the end line and cut the ball back for both of RVP's goals, and it's a quality which could prove to be a huge asset to Arsenal. Defenders do not like to see the ball coming across the goalmouth in the manner Gervinho put it across yesterday, and it makes it easy for attacking players to score.
Let's hope that Gervinho can use that performance as a cornerstone for the rest of his season, and he can help Arsenal to climb back up the table if he does.
It's impossible to judge how important RVP has made himself in the current Arsenal team, but his return of 25 league goals in 26 matches so far in 2011 says it all. Arsenal seemingly have nobody capable of taking his place when he is injured or rested, and they are dependant on him staying fit. Chamakh is still short of any sort of confidence, and Park Ju Young has hardly got a look in since he signed in August.
Wenger did say that Park will start in the Carling Cup against Bolton tomorrow night, but it's not easy to judge a player when he is part of a second string team. I hope he plays very well and shows Wenger that he has another genuine option besides RVP, but he only has 90 minutes to do so. It's a game I'll go into further tomorrow, but hopefully another win for Arsenal will help with the current process of restoring confidence.
The weekend worked out quite well for Arsenal as they attempted to make up ground on the teams above them. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all dropped points, and had problems of their own in their games too. It was fascinating to see the collapse of United at home to City, and the indiscipline of Chelsea in their defeat to QPR.
Arsenal's next league game is against Chelsea, but unfortunately the majority of their suspensions from yesterday's defeat will take place in their midweek Carling Cup game. Didier Drogba will miss out though after his straight red card, and he has been a constant bane for Arsenal in the past. Arsenal will not be expected to get anything from that game, as their away record has been so poor this season but that might just suit them.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
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