Friday, 28 February 2014

Arsenal's Trip To Stoke Previewed

Arsenal have had a week off for the first time in quite a well, but it's back to action with a bang for them from here on in. They put in a very good performance to see off Sunderland last week and now they face a trip to another team struggling at the wrong end of the table. With a really hard schedule coming up for Arsenal they need to take all three points off a Stoke team who are never easy to beat at home.

Stoke have shown already this season that they're a match for any team at home by beating both Chelsea and United and drawing with City. They don't give up the fight at home and Liverpool had to score five goals to finally see them off up there. Both Chelsea and United got back into their games against Stoke, but Stoke were able to go forward and score the winner each time after being pegged back. If Arsenal are going to take the three points they will have to put all they have into the game from the first minute to the last.

Arsenal have been very good at despatching the teams from the lower half of the table this season. They lost at home to Villa on the opening day, but since then the only points dropped to a team in the bottom half of the table were in a 1-1 draw at West Brom. If Arsenal are going to continue to challenge for the title it's vital that they continue to put away the Premier League's less glamourous teams. So far they have won 13 of their 15 games against teams in the bottom half of the table and no other team can match that record.

This is a fixture which has had it's moments of controversy in the recent past and none more so than the incident between Aaron Ramsey and Ryan Shawcross. Whether you think Shawcross intended to cause him such an horrific injury or not is a matter of opinion, but there is no denying it was an awful challenge. Shawcross is still a valued member of the Stoke team and Ramsey has finally put that injury behind him to blossom into a magnificent player. Unfortunately for Arsenal Ramsey has been injured for a few months now and his contribution had been sorely missed at times during that spell.

Mark Hughes may have changed the way Stoke play from the bad old days of Tony Pulis, but I have no doubt they will still be prepared to put the boot in against Arsenal if they get a chance. The long ball tactics and long throw ins may have gone by the wayside for the main part, but Stoke fans want to see their players kick Arsenal at home. Those fans will give Arsene Wenger plenty of abuse and no doubt Ramsey too even though he's not playing and the best way to shut them up is for Arsenal to play their team off the park and rattle a few goals in. 

If the magnificent Arsenal travelling fans can be heard loud and clear above the home fans it's always a good sign the game is going well. Of course those Arsenal fans will sing and support the team from first minute to last regardless of the result as they always do, but they are always more audible when the home fans have been silenced. Arsenal have an excellent record at home to Stoke but they have found it difficult to get results in Stoke in the Premier League. 

In team news Arsenal can welcome Mesut Ozil and Thomas Vermaelen back to the squad, but there are injury doubts over both Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs. If neither of them are available to play there are still options at left back with Vermaelen, Bacary Sagna and Mathieu Flamini all capable of playing the role quite well. It would be a big ask for Vermaelen in his first game back and I think Sagna will switch to the left if both Gibbs and Monreal don't make it. That would see Carl Jenkinson come in at right back and his stature could be an added bonus against the threat in the air which Stoke pose.

In midfield I expect Ozil to come straight back into the team which could see either Jack Wilshere or Tomas Rosicky lose out. I think Wilshere will keep his place and Rosicky will lose out despite his very good performance last week. That would mean either Flamini or Mikel Arteta wouldn't start either and I suspect Arteta will play although this game might be custom made for Flamini.

Lukas Podolski got a rare start last week but I suspect he will be on the bench again with Santi Cazorla playing on the left of the attacking trio and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coming back in on the right. Olivier Giroud came back in last week after missing out on the previous two games and showed why he should still be the first choice striker with two goals and an assist. He may just have benefitted from the rest he got on the bench for those two games and hopefully he can continue on where he left off last week.

Stoke may be only three points above the relegation zone but they have only lost two of their 13 home games in the league. They have been good defensively at home except for the five goals Liverpool put past them and that can happen to any team no matter how good they are. They haven't scored too many goals at home and have drawn six of those home games with three 0-0 draws and three 1-1 draws.

Arsenal are coming into a crucial stage of the season and they need to be at their very best to keep challenging in the league and the FA Cup. There are a few players out with injuries at the moment but almost all of them should be back very soon with the exception of Theo Walcott who won't play again this season. Those returning players will be a real welcome boost to a squad which needs every bit of quality it can get from here on in.

Arsenal had being starting games far too slowly in the last few months but they made very good starts in their last two games against Bayern Munich and Sunderland. More of the same is needed against Stoke to try to get ahead and then stay ahead. Stoke may have a good home record, but Arsenal are pretty good away from home with eight wins in their 13 games and only Liverpool scoring more away goals than them. 

I'm hoping to see a performance from Arsenal to set them up for the upcoming challenges which start with the FA Cup quarter final against Everton next week. When Arsenal are playing that game against Everton Chelsea will be playing in the league and could open up a gap by playing that extra game. It's vital for Arsenal to stay as close as possible to them before they play them in three weeks time at Stamford Bridge. That game comes either side of league games against Spurs and City and it's a run of three games which will probably decide whether Arsenal stay in the title race or not.

Despite their home record I think Stoke are there for the taking and a fully switched on Arsenal will do just that. As long as the players bring the attitude and commitment which are needed in any Premier League game they should be good enough to win. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow. 

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