Saturday, 2 February 2013

Premier League – Arsenal overcome Stoke despite bad-tempered finish

Lukas Podolski’s deflected free kick was enough to edge Arsenal to a deserved 1-0 win over Stoke at the Emirates in the Premier League. The Gunners enjoyed over 70% of the possession in the match, and had to contend with Stoke City’s heavy-handed defensive display, but having been frustrated for 78 minutes the German substitute finally struck to give his side all three points.
Even then there was drama as the assistant referee raised his flag for an offside against Theo Walcott, but the strike was deflected in via a Stoke player, and referee Chris Foy ruled that the goal should stand.
The Potters, having been on the back foot throughout, made a last-ditch triple substitution, but did not get close to an equaliser.
And in fact the end of the game was more notable for an unlikely spat featuring Michael Owen, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, after the former England striker appeared to swing an arm at the Spaniard.
With Kieran Gibbs out for up to six weeks, it was little surprise to see deadline day arrival Nacho Monreal parachuted into the Arsenal line-up at left-back. Santi Cazorla and Podolski, meanwhile, were afforded a break and benched.
Stoke, for their part, fielded none of their January captures, sticking to a containing 4-5-1 formation with Peter Crouch as the spearhead.
For half an hour that defensive ploy worked. The Potters have one of the better defensive records in the division, and they spoiled Arsenal’s every attacking foray in the early stages.
The visitors did not provide a great deal up front, however, and were limited to snapshots from the edge of the area, and leaving Wojciech Szczesny largely untested.
But once Arsenal eventually clicked into gear Stoke were lucky to survive the last 15 minutes of the half unscathed.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the best two chances. First he escaped at the far post on a corner, chested down and shot, only for Asmir Begovic to block it from point-blank range. Then he popped up on the end of a wonderful through ball from Wilshere, angled a shot at the far post, again tipped away by the Stoke goalkeeper on the stretch.
Meanwhile Laurent Koscielny had a header saved, and Olivier Giroud inexplicably nodded across the six-yard box when unmarked at the far post and with the goal seemingly at his mercy.
Arsenal swarmed all over their opponents, but Stoke somehow made it to the interval, battered and bruised (literally in the case of Jon Walters, who came off worse in a clash of heads with Monreal and had to be bandaged up), but on level terms.
The pressure continued in the second half, but apart from a shot over the top from Giroud after Wilshere had cut the ball back into his path, the chances began to dry up.
The contest got increasingly tetchy – twice Walcott went down in off-the-ball incidents with Andy Wilkinson, and on both occasions he was furious that the assistant referee did not intervene.
Wenger threw on Cazorla and Podolski for Abou Diaby and Oxlade-Chamberlain with a quarter of a match to go, and it was the German who finally broke through.
The free kick, fittingly, came from another Wilkinson challenge on Walcott, and the deflection left the otherwise-excellent Begovic with no chance of stopping it.
Cazorla could have doubled the lead just a couple of minutes later, the Bosnian’s fingertip save denied the Gunners again.
It made for a nervy finish to the match, punctuated by Owen losing his cool soon after coming on, but the result was one Arsenal’s dominance merited.

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