Stoke City – Arsenal Preview–Make or Break Time up in the Potteries
Stoke away is a match which has become infamous since 2010 when a full blooded tackle from Ryan Shawcross broke Aaron Ramsey’s tibia and fibula. Shawcross (to his credit, I believe) left the field in tears, while Ramsey left it on a stretcher–to boos and derision from Stoke supporters. Subsequently, in an atmosphere of very high emotion, Cesc Fabregas led Arsenal to a 3-1 victory. Unfortunately, the acrimony between partisans was further stoked by pantomime dramas in the press around apologies and misplaced behaviours. The negative tactics (and demeanor) of then manager, Tony Pulis, did nothing to mollify matters, nor did Arsenal’s continued struggles in trips to the Britannia. Pulis is now gone, but another manager, Mark Hughes, who has never been high on the list of most revered men amongst Gooners–or our own manager, Arsene Wenger–is now at the helm. Faces have changed but the animosity most certainly has not.
Shawcross, now Captain of his club, will lead a slightly more elegant bunch onto the pitch tomorrow. Will Hughes keep the mowers off and let it grow for an extra day or two as they used to during the Pulis era? At least the groundskeepers can no longer bring in the touchlines to league minimums to favor the long throws of Rory Delap and try to hinder the better passing clubs. Things may be modernizing at Stoke City, but the always simmering bad blood between the two clubs will not be cured by the simple handshake Shawcross and Ramsey are sure to share in the moments before kickoff.
That Ramsey will have to reprise his 90+ minutes of hard running which, at the very end, yielded the assist which allowed Gooners to breathe again, is down to the injuries in the squad. Long termers Ozil, Debuchy, Wilshere are out and Theo Walcott has not recovered from a groin strain picked up on International duty. Tomas Rosicky also seems to have picked up a thigh injury and Yaya Sanogo might be carrying a hamstring strain from 10 days ago. Both left backs, Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs, are nursing knocks picked up last weekend at West Bromwich Albion and Nacho, it appears, will definitely be withheld. Laurent Koscielny, although still bothered by at least one Achilles tendon, appears to be able to continue in central defense, but faces a late fitness test. His presence along with the solid work of Damien Martinez in goal have been strong factors leading to consecutive clean sheets in the league, and three in all competitions. Even though Wojciech Szczesny has recovered from his collision with Gibbs vs ManU, it seems unlikely that he’ll get the call between the sticks.
Stoke have injury issues of their own. Jonathan Walters has a knee problem and Glenn Whelan and Robert Huth are also doubtful with calf injuries. Stephen Ireland could miss out because of illness while Steve Sidwell, Peter Odemwingie, Victor Moses and Dionatan Teixeira are all sidelined with longer term issues.
At least Hughes and Stoke had an extra day to recover from their midweek match on Tuesday at ManU. They lost that one, 2-1, but it was a very close and hard fought battle which turned on the slimmest of margins. They also played very well vs Liverpool and only lost on a late goal from Glen Johnson. Will they be lacking confidence from the results or taking heart in the strong performances and feeling they are due?
Arsenal, in many respects, are coming from an opposite perspective, having eked out tight wins in their last two. The fight and organization shown has been good but the inability to create more comfortable margins has taken a toll. While the manager would surely love to rotate his players, he’ll instead have to ask his guys to dig deeper, perhaps promising stalwarts like Atlas, er, Alexis Sanchez, a chance to rest in midweek when we have to make the long trip to Istanbul for the final Champions’ League group match. At least Galatasaray will have nothing to play for in that one. We would like to win that match to have a chance at winning the group, but that seems a long-shot, given that group leaders Dortmund are playing (also eliminated) Anderlecht in their home stadium.
Talking recently about his team and “lessons learned,” in reference to the way the team got exposed chasing an equalizer against ManU two weeks ago, Wenger may also be chastened by his experience in this same fixture last season. In that one, our attack, despite ample possession, was unable to make headway against a stubborn Stoke defence. Trying to rest key players, notably Mesut Ozil, backfired when, with only 15 minutes to go, a very soft handball penalty was called on Laurent Koscielny and subsequently converted by Jonathan Walters. Despite the introduction of Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo, the goal served to re-invigorate the Stoke team (and their crowd) and they were able to see out the victory. Trying to push earlier (and take the home support out of the match) then, might be a better tactic.
With that notion in mind, my best guess for the starting 11 would be the group which started at WBA, with the one change at Left Back.
Bench = Szczesny, Bellerin, Ajayi, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Campbell (and one of Sanogo or Rosicky depending of fitness)
I could give a list of who I believe Stoke will play, but instead, I will only name the guy they (and their support) will be attempting to influence… The referee, one Anthony Taylor, infamous to Gooners for his work on Opening Day last season vs Aston Villa. Will he seek to make up for that (woeful) performance or continue in his efforts to punish our brand of football? Regardless, despite his Howard Webb hairstyle, he seems like one of the younger sorts, brought up based on a reputation for “letting them play”… Hopefully he can curb that tendency just a bit, remembering the ugliness of the Ramsey injury and its aftermath. Maybe Rambo should show him the scar… Again, taking the crowd out of this one, in the hope that the better side can prevail, seems a worthwhile tactic.
Can we do that and, more pointedly, are we actually the better side?
Under Hughes, Stoke have quietly gathered a good group which includes Stephen N’zonzi (another deep lying midfielder Arsenal might’ve considered given our own troubles in this area) and Barcelona flop, Bojan Krkic. Peter Crouch (no longer an automatic in the first 11) always seems to play his best against Arsenal and another new player, Mame Biram Diouf, took down another big team, Man City, with a solo effort on the counter for Stoke’s best moment of the season.
Stretched as we are (and Wenger admitted to the team “lacking fluency” vs Southhampton), I would say that this will be a (very) tough one. As the manager also suggests, we have to hope the boys can dig deep and get the job done. Given the high expectations of most Gooners, nothing less than taking the full 3 points will suffice. Stoke, of course, also need a result and will be well motivated to get one in front of their home support. They will also have a full week of time off before the next one, so I would expect them to pull out all the stops to leave it all out on the pitch and do everything they can to draw a line under this run of close results (but strong performances) which have gone against them. There must be a million other platitudes to suggest that another very tough battle awaits.
Insert your favorite… Or tell us who you would play (and how you would rotate) and what sort of result you’re expecting… Or anything else… 🙂
Go on you Gunners, Up the Arsenal, etc., etc., etc.
Written by: 17HighburyTerrace