And Arsenal must win at the always difficult Britannia Stadium if they wish to keep their hopes of Champions League Football alive. If we can grab all three points at Stoke, Gooners will watch Sunday’s West Ham-Liverpool match with a keen eye. Winning in the potteries combined with the Hammers getting a result would mean that Arsenal would finally hold their fate in their own hands in the quest for top 4 spot.
But that’s getting ahead of things and taking care of our own business at Stoke must be the only focus. It won’t be easy. Although Stoke sit comfortably in the middle of the table, there is no love lost between the opposing managers and Mark Hughes will want his team to give their all to beat the Gunners. Stoke supporters will too, and, as always when Arsenal visit, will want to see blood if not broken bones. Even if Hughes has morphed his squad into a more skilled group than the teams his predecessor Tony Pulis put out, this fixture always has an edge to it. I expect both Aaron Ramsey and Ryan Shawcross, the man who broke his leg back in 2010, to start in this one and I’ll be watching when they shake hands to gauge the intensity of the game just ahead.
As I say, the current Stoke group are more than just cloggers and brutes. Players like Xherdan Shaquiri, Saido Berahino and Joe Allen are small but skilled attackers even if they are backed up by bigger and more powerful guys like Shawcross, Bruno Martins Indi and Geoff Cameron. Arsenal should beware of those more sizable players when they come forward at set pieces. In open play, it will be the smaller guys working in combos and trying to deliver crosses and throughballs towards Marko Arnautovic and Mame Diouf. Stoke, in front of their home crowd, won’t just sit back and defend.
That might suit Arsenal who are becoming ever more familiar with the 3-4-3 formation that has yielded five wins from six matches since it was introduced. Surely manager Arsene Wenger will send out his first 11 in that set-up. The bigger question is if he will rotate some players into the group or stay with the starters who won at Southampton on Wednesday night. Rotation would seem the call with less than 72 hours to recover and prepare between our matches compared to Stoke’s full week off since they drew 2-2 at Bournemouth last Saturday. With only a week left in the season, however, I think Wenger will flog his players and hope they can dig deep to continue their winning ways. As such, my guess is that the only change will be an enforced one: Hector Bellerin in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at right wingback. The Ox was forced off with a hamstring injury on Wednesday night but reports are that it was not overly severe. I hope that’s the case so I’m slating him for a bench seat. My predicted first 11 thus looks like this.
Substitutes: Ospina, Gabriel, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Walcott, Giroud
That’s just my predicted group and there seems plenty of rationale to make additional changes. The big figure of Olivier Giroud is always an asset at the front post when corner kicks are taken–at both ends of the pitch–especially against the more physical sides. If he goes for deeper rotation, Wenger might choose to hand starts to Francis Coquelin, Alex Iwobi and/or Theo Walcott, guys who might be fresher and who might be able to offer a little recovery time for some of the players who have been starting each and every match. Then there are those who have been training but not dressing for recent games, a group that includes Per Mertesacker, Mathieu Debuchy and Lucas Perez. This game represents the mid-point of a brutal run of five matches in two weeks. It would be a risky move to break up a winning formula but can Wenger afford to push his regulars so hard?
We shall see, but my hunch is that he’ll stay with as much of the winning group as he can. What say you? Everybody has an opinion, so don’t keep it to yourself.
As Wenger has been saying, “We have one advantage, the advantage of clarity.” Clearly we need another win and we must get it by hook or by crook. A well rested Stoke team in front of their home support is as big a test as they come. No matter what, somehow Arsenal must rise to the occasion and bring home the three points.
Go on then…