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Battling draw sees Arsenal edge ahead in the fight for third

Stoke 1 Arsenal 1

Crouch 9; van Persie 15

Although both sides had opportunities to win this game in the closing 15 minutes, a draw at the home of one of their bogey teams will have pleased Arsenal, particularly in the light of Newcastle’s heavy defeat at Wigan. It leaves them in control of their own destiny in the battle for the third and final guaranteed Champions League spot. However, the game was marred by persistent abuse from the home fans, much of it targeted at Aaron Ramsey, who was returning to the ground where he had his leg broken by Ryan Shawcross two years ago.

Arsene Wenger made two changes to the side that played out a goalless draw with Chelsea last weekend. Gervinho replaced the injured Theo Walcott on the right side of attack, while Yossi Benayoun – ineligible to play against his parent club – came in on the left.

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Ramsey

Gervinho – Rosicky – Benayoun

van Persie

In October, Robin van Persie came off the bench to score twice in the last 18 minutes to give Arsenal a 3-1 win over Stoke at Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal battle back

The first half was representative of Arsenal’s season in microcosm. They dominated possession, looked neat and tidy in attack, scored one beautiful goal, but went in level thanks to an individual defensive error.

An already motivated Arsenal were fired up by an early rough-house tackle by Dean Whitehead on Alex Song for which the Stoke player was rightly booked. But despite an impressive start – both Yossi Benayoun and Robin van Persie were unable to convert presentable early chances – Stoke took the lead with their first meaningful attack. The normally reliable Bacary Sagna gave away possession just outside his own area, and Matthew Etherington had time to measure his cross. Peter Crouch rose above Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs to direct a fine header past the flat-footed Wojciech Szczesny.

Van Persie netted his 28th league goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Barely five minutes later, however, the visitors were back on level terms. Taking a leaf out of Stoke’s playbook, the industrious Benayoun hounded right-back Ryan Shotton off the ball and set Tomas Rosicky free with a neat reverse pass. The Czech international patiently worked himself a yard of space and measured an inch-perfect cross to the back post, where van Persie volleyed home from close range. It was the Dutchman’s 28th Premier League goal of the season, and his first from open play in 12 hours of football.

Arsenal would go on to dominate the rest of the half, creating several openings but failing to convert any, with Gervinho twice guilty of profligacy in promising positions.

With the visitors dominating possession and Stoke’s midfield frequently bystanders as the ball sailed over their heads, the home side were reduced to relying on Shotton’s long throws and set-pieces to put pressure on Szczesny’s goal. But Arsenal’s defence, despite a couple of fraught moments, coped well with the aerial bombardment and were more than worth parity at half-time.

A point gained?

Although the second half was more even, Arsenal continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession and created more and better chances. Sagna’s cross from the right found van Persie’s head, but Asmir Begovic was able to cover the effort. Gervinho and Vermaelen couldn’t keep decent opportunities from sailing over the bar. Aaron Ramsey also fired wide.

Benayoun was unlucky not to earn his side a penalty (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Then, twice in quick succession, Arsenal had decent appeals for penalties turned down by referee Chris Foy. First van Persie’s free kick was charged down and Vermaelen’s follow-up shot struck a Stoke arm just inside the area. Then Glenn Whelan appeared to clumsily bundle Benayoun over as he sped onto van Persie’s lay-off. Both looked to be reasonable shouts.

But Stoke created chances of their own too, particularly in the last ten minutes. Szczesny had to be alert to beat away substitute Cameron Jerome‘s fierce angled shot. And then, in added-on time, a long throw by Rory Delap skewed backwards off Szczesny’s attempted punch in a crowded area, but Sagna was on hand to whack the ball clear. It was a crucial late intervention, but a point was the least Arsenal deserved. Combined with Newcastle’s defeat, it leaves them four points clear of their nearest rivals having played a game more.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsene Wenger was pleased with his team’s battling performance at his post-match press conference:

I believe that it was a game where we have shown great character, great battling qualities. It was a game of two different approaches – one very direct in the air and one who tries to play on the ground. Both teams are good at what they do and that’s why I think it was still an interesting game. Overall we deserved at least a point and I can only give credit to my players for their battling qualities.

He responded to questions about the way Aaron Ramsey was booed continuously by the home fans:

I don’t think you can be especially proud to boo Aaron Ramsey because I don’t see what he has done wrong in his behaviour. That’s an old story where the fans of Stoke stand behind their player. But it shouldn’t go as far as booing Aaron Ramsey.

And he commented on his ‘relationship’ with Stoke’s supporters:

They have a relationship with me but I don’t have one with them! They do [enjoy my visits] but I personally have enough experience to cope with that [criticism]. It doesn’t bother me too much. I don’t listen too much to what people chant and I just think one day people in football will have to tackle that as well. It is easy to sit in the stand and insult people.

I am not responsible for the way people behave in the stands. If you want to stop that it is easy to stop but I cannot influence it.

Finally he offered suggestions as to how such abuse could be stopped:

You can isolate every single face. The only thing I think sometimes when I leave the pitch at the end of the game and people insult you or are angry or hateful, I’d just like a little picture and send it home to you. Show that to your son or your daughter, and then come back next week and see if you would do it again, if they are proud of you.

It was disappointing to hear Stoke manager Tony Pulis respond to similar questioning by deflecting responsibility for dealing with abuse onto football’s authorities. All fans appreciate a bit of banter, but the treatment of Ramsey by the Stoke fans went way beyond that.

Sagna‘s carelessness on Crouch’s goal aside, Arsenal defended with great determination throughout the team against the kind of aerial bombardment they often struggle against. They stuck to their task well in the kind of game in which, in past years, they would have succumbed to defeat.

The trio of Song, Ramsey and Rosicky dominated in midfield, happy to mix it physically but without responding to provocation. Remarkably, Stoke received only one booking – Whitehead’s – although the midfielder was fortunate to escape a second yellow late on for another ‘enthusiastic’ tackle. Ramsey, the butt of much fan dissatisfaction in recent months, performed especially well despite the hostile environment.

Up front van Persie took his goal with aplomb, but Gervinho continued to frustrate with his habit of getting himself into good positions and then squandering them. The injured Theo Walcott would probably have done better with at least one of the three openings the Ivorian enjoyed. Yossi Benayoun excelled, providing much-needed energy both with and without the ball.

Although they have amassed just two points from their last three games, two wins in their final two games – at home to Norwich and away to West Brom – will secure a third-place finish, and four points may very well be sufficient. It’s not been a comfortable ride in recent weeks, but the finish line is in sight.

Arsenal man of the match: Yossi Benayoun. Positive both with and without the ball, and instrumental in setting up Arsenal’s goal. Exemplified the attitude Arsenal needed to show – and did show – in a tough, physical atmosphere.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to Battling draw sees Arsenal edge ahead in the fight for third

  1. RockyLives says:

    Good, balanced report. I thought it was a good point, well earned. Admittedly, if Newcastle had won it might have looked more like two points dropped, but in the circumstances it keeps matters in our own hands.

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