Match Preview: Arsenal FC vs Stoke City 18/12/10 15:00By: joehigginson | December 17th, 2010
All across the world, families are putting aside their personal differences in celebration of the festive season. Whether the Christmas spirit can improve the strained relations between Stoke and Arsenal is quite another matter; but given some of the comments already made this week, a miracle on Ashburton Grove is not completely out of the question.
Before last February, I never got the impression that Stoke and Arsenal fans held any real animosity for certain players on the opposing team. It was the war of words waged between managers Wenger and Pulis that first alienated both sets of fans against each other. Both have stayed quiet recently and it was Wenger who broke the proverbial armistice, taking a calm and dignified approach to tomorrow’s fixture possibly in an attempt to defuse the growing tension in both camps. Wenger made himself a figure of ridicule (‘enemy’ seems a little farfetched) to Stoke fans when criticising our style of play, our pitch and of course our manager. Many felt he crossed a line when picking on particular players like Rob Huth, especially as he was slamming his display against Tottenham of all teams! I was fully expecting him to kick up a storm in his latest press conference but he earned back a bit of respect from this Stoke fan (not that I’ve ever had much time for him) with his diplomatic manner, suggesting the slate was clean and respect should be shown to the opponents. Admirable sentiments when he probably would have gotten away with throwing the book at us again.
Like Wenger with Stoke, Pulis talked his way into Arsenal’s bad books when refusing to take their criticism lying down, but he has been guilty of some senseless unprovoked sniping himself in the past. The full attention of the media is rarely focused on Stoke but this fixture has undoubtedly been marked as a potential time-bomb. With the press after a story, Stoke have a very careful line to tread this weekend and I think our manager is fully aware of the situation. In what was probably a pre-emptive strike against the papers given the angle they’re most likely to take in their own previews and reports, Pulis chose to compare the recent disciplinary record between the two teams, which shows Arsenal to have picked up more cards and conceded more free kicks. It may look on the surface like more sniping but Pulis was right to bring the facts across to those journalists whose brand of reporting bypasses research in favour of stereotypes and preconceptions. I get the impression Pulis already thinks its backs against the wall time and there is some truth to that. Ultimately, it matters not that Stoke have a cleaner record that Arsenal this season, we will be the team that is scrutinised on the day.
The name on everybody’s lips is of course young Aaron Ramsey. Stretchered off with a broken leg when the two last met in February, any cordial entente between the two teams was quickly dissolved. Ten months on, and Ramsey thankfully avoids being marked as a notable absentee having returned from injury and secured a loan to Nottingham Forest. Unfortunately, the greatest healer of all has failed spectacularly. Time will not have diminished the ill feeling of Arsenal fans toward the villain of the piece, Ramsey’s ‘attacker’ Ryan Shawcross. We all know there was no malice or intent to harm in his challenge and the lad has done everything in his power to atone for the situation, apologising on camera and trying to keep in contact with Ramsey during his recovery period. However, whether these gestures were recognised by Arsenal fans or not is insignificant, our Captain faces a frosty reception (or as close to frosty as somewhere like the Emirates can muster) from the home fans regardless. It’ll be a real test of his character and mental strength to lead the team out and try to deliver a performance memorable for the right reasons. As for the players, no-one has offered an opinion yet regarding the forthcoming fixture so I think we can expect handshakes all round, however grudging.
So as we enter the weekend, things would appear surprisingly calm with both managers courteous and dismissing the idea of a hostile atmosphere tomorrow. Should tomorrow pass by incident free, I can see both teams finally committing ‘Ramsey-gate’ to history and moving forward. Any controversy will be blown up on the back pages and probably set back relations for another decade. It’s hanging in the balance!
Not often I can say this but first name on the team-sheet will be Rory Delap, the Gunners bane. Arsenal are the only top tier team that continue to struggle from the long throw (although admittedly the last evidence of this was nearly a year ago) and Stoke really need to focus on aerially bombarding the back five, the weakest elements in this Arsenal team. The line-up should be unchanged from last week’s loss to Blackpool. Kenwyne Jones will be looking to impress after some pretty dire recent performances and Ricardo Fuller will want to continue his recent good form against the Gunners (it’s been a while since his last ‘one man army’ performance so who knows). The defence will have plenty to keep them occupied and keeping pace with Arsenal for a full ninety minutes is a tough ask. Huth and Shawcross will need to be at the top of their game to keep a lid on things, but its full backs Danny Collins and Andy Wilkinson who will most likely be targeted. No fresh injury concerns but Jon Walters looks set to miss out after succumbing to a bout of flu.
Arsenals mental toughness was inevitably brought into question following their 1-0 loss to Manchester United but in all fairness, both teams looked pretty average that night and were at least competing on the same level (compared to the gulf in class that has been evident the last couple of seasons). As I mentioned above, Arsenals back line is vulnerable. The influence of Thomas Vermaelen is sorely missed right now and Sebastien Squillachi and Laurent Koscielny are still finding their feet in English football. Debutant Wojciech Szczesny (triple word score!) gave a decent account of himself in goal during his baptism of fire against Man United, but I’ll hold back any further judgement for now (we’ll see how many of you can remember his name in a month). Up front, Arsenal are all together a different proposition. Nicklas Bendtner is away on paternity leave but Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Marouane Chamakh and Samir Nasri make up a frightening quartet of attacking players ready to cause trouble. I can see Jack Wilshere making the starting eleven as well, and Theo Walcott will make carthorses out of our defence if he starts. The big question is whether there’s room for Andrey Arshavin? I don’t watch Arsenal week in, week out but I’ve seen enough to conclude that the Russian has looked lacklustre of late and tends to go missing. It’s arguably Wenger’s biggest decision in terms of line-up.
One To Watch
Samir Nasri: Quite simply the best player in England so far this season. Everything has fallen right for Nasri in the last few months, winning French player of the year, installing himself as ‘the’ key component in this Arsenal team and mercifully avoiding his country’s world cup debacle. A prodigious talent.
Head is overruling heart this week. I’d be very surprised and very impressed if we got anything from this game, particularly as Arsenal will want to make a firm statement of their title credentials after losing top spot last week. 2-0 loss.