Sunday, 11 January 2015

Arsenal v Stoke Preview

Arsenal came through their FA Cup third round game with Hull last Sunday with relative ease and face a trip to Championship strugglers Brighton in the next round. Unusually for Arsenal they will play only once a week throughout January and that should afford the players some rest as well as easing the returning players back into the fold. Some of those games will be far from easy though starting with a home game against Stoke on Sunday and followed by a trip to the current champions the week after.

At least City will be without Yaya Toure who is off playing in the ACN, but Sergio Aguero came back from his injury to play as a sub yesterday. With Arsenal's dismal away record to the Premier League's best teams it's a game which can hardly be looked forward to. They have a much different task today though with serial thugs Stoke coming to the Emirates after beating Arsenal 3-2 on their own ground only a few weeks ago.

Arsenal were just starting to put an impressive run together when they played Stoke and their first half performance in particular in that game was a thing of nightmares. It was the sort of performance we unfortunately all know Arsenal are capable of, but it usually comes against the better sides in the league. Arsenal were lucky to be only 3-0 down in that game when they eventually woke up, but all hopes of getting an equaliser went when Calum Chambers got his second yellow card of the game.

Arsenal have continued with their yo-yo form since then and were very poor in losing their last league game away to Southampton. Some of the defending (and goalkeeping) in that game was again the stuff of nightmares and that was with Laurent Koscielny in the team. I have no doubt he is Arsenal's best defender, but when he has an off day the defence tend to go to pieces.

In team news it's all good with Olivier Giroud back from suspension while Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini should all be available after injury. It means Arsene Wenger will have some selection headaches for the first time in a while and he will have to decide which, if any, of the injured players come into the team. I have no doubt that Giroud will play from the start as his presence in attack and in defensive set pieces is very important against a team like Stoke in particular.

The teams met only a few weeks ago and it was a day for Arsenal to forget with a first half performance in particular which was worse than awful. I don't expect Arsenal to go behind after 19 seconds today or to be lucky to be only three goals down before they get themselves any sort of foothold in the game. Stoke deservedly beat them 3-2 in that game and I want the Arsenal players to show the hurt us fans felt from that result.

With a week between each game for the rest of this month there's no need for Arsenal players to be rested and I expect to see the strongest team possible today. To beat Stoke you have to match them physically and impose your game on them and Arsenal must do that today. As well as matching Stoke's physicality Arsenal will need the referee to be strong and he cannot let Stoke get away with the sort of challenges Charlie Adam perpetrated on Alexis Sanchez last month.

It's a chance for Arsenal to move back above Spurs in the table and for them to make up ground on the teams currently in third and fourth place who play each other later in the day. A win for Arsenal today would put them fifth and they would definitely make up ground on one of the teams above them if not both if United and Southampton draw. A top four finish is absolutely essential and the sooner the better Arsenal move into the top four.

I'm not so sure Ozil will play from the start today, but I think Ramsey will come into the midfield alongside either Flamini or Francis Coquelin. It will be interesting to see if Coquelin keeps his place after some impressive performances when he was needed by the team. It will also be interesting to see who Giroud replaces and if Theo Walcott plays from the start.

We're all waiting with baited breath to see an Arsenal team with Ozil, Walcott and Alexis Sanchez in it. That day is coming very soon, but it might not be today and Stoke might not be the ideal opponents for that trio. 

Stoke have saved their best performances for games against the better teams in the Premier League this season as Arsenal know already. They are the only team to win away to City so far this season and were more than a touch unlucky to lose away to Liverpool and United while they have won away to both Everton and Spurs too. They cannot be taken lightly and nothing less than a top class performance from Arsenal will be good enough or acceptable for that matter.

I expect the team to put in such a performance to show where they want to go in the second half of the season and get the three points today. Stoke have a very poor record away to Arsenal since their promotion to the Premier League and I expect that to continue. I know this Arsenal team have not lived up to expectations far too often this season, but hopefully the calibre of players coming back will install some new conference into the team. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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