Saturday, 2 February 2013

Arsenal's Premier League Game With Stoke Previewed

After the thrills and spills of Wednesday night's 2-2 draw with Liverpool it's straight back into another game for Arsenal today. Stoke are today's visitors and they will bring their own particular brand of football with them. It's not exactly an attractive game they play, but it has been effective for them.

Until recently Stoke had the best defensive record in the league, but the 15 goals conceded in their last five games have changed that. Arsenal haven't exactly been overly effective in defence either and both teams have conceded 29 goals in the league. The big difference between the teams comes in the goals for column where Arsenal have twice as many goals scored.

In fact Stoke are so goal shy that only the bottom two clubs have scored less goals than them. If they continue to conceded goals at their current rate they will find themselves sliding quickly down the table. It won't happen this season but it would be such a great thing to see them slide back into lower league obscurity.

Arsenal have reached the stage where they have to win the vast majority of their remaining games. The draw with Liverpool was a missed opportunity in their quest for a top four finish with Spurs drawing at Norwich on the same night. Arsenal cannot continue to pass up opportunities to close the gap on the teams ahead of them.

A four point gap isn't much with 14 games left, but there will be days where Arsenal lose ground . They need to take advantage of every slip by Spurs and Everton too. It could be a very close thing come the end of the season and every single point is very important.

In team news the injury Kieran Gibbs picked up against Liverpool will see him miss up to six weeks. He's always been injury prone and his latest injury was yet again one not involving a challenge. He pulled up while running and it's a worry that his body just seems unable to cope with the rigours of the game at times.

The prospect of Andre Santos playing as Arsenal's first choice left back for the next six weeks was a very worrying one. It's surely the reason why Arsene Wenger forked out a reported £10 million for Nacho Monreal just before the transfer window closed. Despite Arsenal supposedly attempting to sign some players before the window closed I don't think Monreal was one of them.

His signature looks like an immediate reaction to the Gibbs injury and Arsenal were very lucky the injury happened when it did. If it had happened against Stoke today there would be no opportunity to bring another player in and Santos would be the only fit left back available. I doubt in Monreal will start today, but I wonder if he will be on the bench.

The boss has spoken about how focused the players are and how that is possibly inhibiting them in games. I can't see how being too focused can prevent the players from performing and they certainly don't look focused enough in defence to me. How come that focus is a lot more evident in the second half of games and they are performing so well after the break.

It appears Arsenal are second in the table in the second half of games this season, but only thirteenth before the break. Whatever is being said or done at half time needs to be replicated before the game to give the players the focus that is needed. If they can show the same level of performance before the break they will surely improve.

Mikael Arteta is fit enough to return to the squad today after missing three weeks injured. He has been missed in the last three weeks, but I think he might stay on the bench just to be on the safe side. That will probably mean Aaron Ramsey will keep his place in the team.

The Stoke fans make a point of booing Ramsey because he didn't particularly want to accept the apology from Ryan Shawcross for shattering his leg three years ago. In their tiny warped brains they somehow imagine Shawcross to be the victim and not the player who had his leg hanging by a thread after a disgusting foul by Shawcross. I hope the Arsenal fans give Ramsey the support he deserves today and Shawcross the abuse he deserves.

Thomas Vermaelen has an ankle knock and faces a fitness test before deciding if he will play today. If he misses out Laurent Koscielny is a ready made replacement and the defence shouldn't suffer if he plays. To be honest the defence couldn't be much worse than Wednesday night no matter who is playing.

I do worry about Santos though and before going off on Wednesday Gibbs was the only defender not making individual errors. Those individual errors have to be stopped and if the players really are focused surely they will cut them out. Stoke may not have a Luis Suarez in their team, but they will take advantage if Arsenal hand them chances on a plate.

I expect the midfield and attack to stay the same as it was against Liverpool. They made plenty of chances in that game and they should do so against a Stoke team that are struggling in defence at the moment. Olivier Giroud has five goals in his last three games and hopefully he can keep up that form today.

Stoke are almost certain to set up with a defensive formation today and try to hit Arsenal from set pieces. Arsenal need to concentrate for every defensive free kick and corner and not hand Stoke anything on a plate. Arsenal will make chances and it would be a pleasant change for them to take a few of them before the opposition score.

If they can sort out their first half performances them a top four finish is well within their capabilities. Hopefully the first half toddy will be the start of things to come for the rest of the season. There's still 42 points to play for and Arsenal will need more than 30 of those points to have a hope of competing in next season's Champions League.

I'm predicting a 3-1 win for Arsenal today and I'm hoping to see them at their best. I have no doubt Stoke will take every chance possible to break up Arsenal's play and I expect to see plenty of fouls on Jack Wilshere. His ability to drive forward from midfield can be very dangerous and I wouldn't be surprised if Stoke took turns to foul him.

Unfortunately the majority of the Arsenal players will have to go off on international duty after today's game. There's a ridiculous round of international friendlies and hopefully the players can all come through them intact before a trip to Sunderland next Saturday.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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