Arsenal are slowly but surely turning their season around, and the next challenge for them is a home game against Stoke City in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon. The game will be a contrast of styles, as Arsenal look to play football and Stoke look to play their very own brand of rugby. It's fitting that the game should be played on the same day as the rugby World Cup final.
Normally this game would have been played on a Saturday afternoon, but it was switched to Sunday because Stoke had a Europa League game last Thursday night. I was interested to read that they had to widen and lengthen their pitch to play in the Europa League, as it was smaller than the minimum allowed by UEFA. I'm sure the Premier League have guidelines about pitch size too, but obviously they don't require the pitch to be as big as UEFA do.
The reason Stoke like a small pitch is of course because it makes their game an awful lot easier, as they look to win as many corners and throw in as possible. It also means their players have less running to do, as part of their game plan is to play without the ball. Personally I'd rather watch paint dry than watch Stoke play, but I will of course make an exception against Arsenal.
In the three seasons Stoke have been back in the Premier League they have lost all three trips to the Emirates, and Arsenal have to be strong favourites to win again. If Arsenal can keep the ball moving around the whole pitch they will tire a Stoke team that pride themselves on their work rate. Sunderland showed a very cynical side against Arsenal last week, but Stoke will bring that to another level I'm sure.
Any referee in charge of Stoke has to be strong, and not allow them to impose their overly physical style on the game. I've no problem with teams working hard to stop Arsenal playing, as long as it's within the rules of the game. Stoke will do all they can to push those rules to the very limit, and past it too when they feel the need arises.
The Arsenal team should be quite similar to the ones that beat Sunderland last Sunday and Marseille on Wednesday night too. There aren't too many options available to Arsene Wenger, but he will have to find a replacement for the injured Carl Jenkinson. He will be out for a week or two after picking up a knee injury on Tuesday night.
The chances are that Johan Djourou will come into the team, but I think he will be deployed as a centre back with Laurent Koscielny switching to Jenkinson's role at right back. I think Koscielny will be more dependable in that role, and he has played there before. Stoke look to get the ball wide as often as possible, and Arsenal's full backs need to be at their best.
In midfield the only choice Wenger will have to make is whether to play Tomas Rosicky or Aaron Ramsey alongside Mikael Arteta and Alex Song. I think Ramsey will get the nod, and it will pit him against the team and the player that shattered his leg just over 18 months ago. I still think Ramsey has some way to go to fully recover from that injury, but he is getting there.
He took his last minute winner against Marseille very well on Wednesday night and he now has two goals to his name this season. I think Rosicky has more of an influence on the game overall, but he has played two games in the last week and I think he will be rested. Ramsey certainly offers more of a goalscoring threat than Rosicky, but then again so does just about any other Arsenal player.
Stoke are bound to have Ryan Shawcross in their team, and I hope he gets the reception he deserves from the Arsenal fans. I'm not asking for them to abuse him, but I think he should be roundly jeered every single time he touches the ball. Maybe his mother will be waiting to take him home in tears again.
Wenger spoke about possibly resting Robin Van Persie, but I would be shocked not to see him in the starting line up. Arsenal play Bolton Wanderers on Tuesday night in the Carling Cup, and there will be a chance for all of the fringe players to play in that game. Arsenal need to get three points off Stoke, and the inclusion of RVP will make that a lot easier in my opinion.
It will be interesting to see what two players get to start on either side of RVP, as none of the Arsenal wide players are setting the world alight at the moment. Arshavin was awful on Wednesday night, but he looked good when he came on against Sunderland last Sunday. Walcott started both games and did very little in either of them, but Gervinho was impressive on Wednesdy night and poor on Sunday.
I would love to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the squad at least so that he can offer something different from the bench, but I don't think he will get a chance until the Bolton game. His time will come at Arsenal, but I wish it would come a little quicker than Wenger it would seem. I wouldn't dare to question his judgement though.
Arsenal started very well against Sunderland last Sunday, and they were excellent for the first 20 minutes, but once their intensity dropped they were vulnerable. They need to keep that intensity level up against Stoke, and if they do so I can see them having too much for them. Stoke struggled in the game after their last Europa League game, and it's never easy getting used to playing twice a week every week.
I'm predicting a 2-0 win for Arsenal with RVP again getting on the scoreline. I'm hoping for a 90 minute display similar to the first 20 minutes last week, but I'll take any sort of win. Arsenal have won their last five home games in a row, and another win would help to restore even more confidence.
Finally for today I have to wish Arsene Wenger a very happy 62nd birthday. He was the man who transformed Arsenal into the club they are now, and was responsible for their new stadium and style of play. He may have made some mistakes in recent seasons, but he still has my utmost respect and admiration.
That's it for today.
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