Arsenal maintained their challenge at the top of the table last night with a pragmatic win over Stoke. The match was more notable for the injuries sustained by Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott than it was for the football on offer but, nonetheless, it was a massively important three points.
After an early flurry of attacking play from Arsenal which produced Seb Squillaci’s headed goal, the first half settled into a soporific tempo in which Stoke parked the bus in front of their goal and the Gunners strung together endless passes as if it were a training session. In truth, much of the home team’s momentum was lost when Fabregas departed after quarter of an hour.
Squillaci's Header Was Enough To Take The Points©Getty Images
It took until the second half for Stoke to realise that they had to offer a bit more if they were to get anything out of the match. What they did offer was their usual mix of long throws, hopeful punts forward and set-pieces. Though their methods are a long way away from anything appertaining to “the beautiful game”, it is the sort of approach that the Gunners have had plenty of trouble dealing with in recent years.
On this occasion though, Arsene Wenger’s men managed the threat with relative comfort and actually defended well. The visitors had a couple of near misses but there were no real heart-attack moments towards the end of the game when you would expect Stoke to have thrown the kitchen sink at stealing a draw. In fact, when five minutes of injury time was shown on the fourth official’s board, the Gunners simply held possession, passed the ball and ran the time out.
The much-hyped bad blood between the clubs didn’t really materialise either. The inevitable booing of Shawcross and derision at the interminable time it takes Delap to deliver his throw-ins was all rather half-hearted and, despite a few heavy challenges from both teams in the second half, nothing really spilled over on the pitch. This was a match against awkward but largely irrelevant opponents that simply needed to be chalked off with the minimum of fuss and bother - and that is what the Arsenal players did.
So, job done, three points, and a degree of pressure exerted on Man United ahead of their upcoming Premier League encounters with Wigan, Chelsea and Liverpool. As mentioned, the main concern coming out of last night’s match regarded the injuries to Cesc and Theo. It has to be said that though Fabregas’s injury looked the less-serious of the two, his absence would be the more sorely felt. Matters will be assessed at the training ground today and we can only cross our fingers and hope that he will make it for Sunday’s Carling Cup Final.
Walcott is already ruled out of the Wembley game. You have to feel sorry for him personally. After making a much-improved contribution this season, it is sad that he has to miss such a big match. However, he would seem to be more easily replaced than the Spaniard – the obvious contender being Andrey Arshavin whose form has been heading back in the right direction over the past couple of months. Again, we await news of how long Walcott will be out for. It will arguably be a bigger blow for him to miss the away leg in Barca than the Carling Cup Final as his pace would provide a good outlet in the sort of match that is likely to be.
Elsewhere this week, the Gunners continued their spluttering FA Cup campaign by drawing at Orient on Sunday. There was much moaning from the manager and certain sections of the fanbase about having to play an extra game. Personally, I don’t see what the problem is. The manager made ten changes after the Barcelona match and gave players who have been warming the bench for the last couple of months an opportunity. Undoubtedly, he will do the same again in the replay and, in all honesty, most of those players looked like they could do with some game-time. Certainly, the incentive of being involved in a match-up with Man United at Old Trafford in the next round ought to be enough to sharpen them up a bit for next Wednesday’s return.
Anyway, with all other business now put to one side, the countdown to Wembley on Sunday begins. Apart from sweating on the injuries to Fabregas and Walcott, Arsenal fans are looking forward to their first major final since meeting Chelsea at the Millennium Stadium in the same competition in 2007. Though the Gunners will go into the match as warm favourites, their own history in this competition shows that favouritism doesn’t always suit them, as evidenced by the finals against Swindon and Luton. Birmingham are going to be fired up for this game and the Arsenal players cannot afford to give anything less than 100% focus and effort.
Victory on Sunday would not be just about picking up a silver pot. It would also be about instilling belief in this set of players that they can do more than just produce moments of exquisitely attractive football. They can prove to themselves and their fans that they are capable of finishing a job off and coming out with a prize at the end of it. In a season where they are still fighting on all four fronts, that could be the most vital aspect of this match.
So, come on you Gunners. Get out there and do it!
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