With the staggered Champions League schedule and Saturday’s evening kick-off time, Arsenal will have had just over a week to prepare for the clash with Stoke City – and they will have needed every moment.
In a season littered with seemingly more ‘must-win’ games than ever, Arsenal need to secure three points as they travel to the Britannia Stadium. The weekend clash will provide a useful litmus test for Arsenal’s credentials as they seek to keep pace with the two above them – waiting to pounce should either drop points. Saturday’s match is Arsenal’s game in hand over close rivals Manchester United and the game also comes in the wake of a tough match for Chelsea against Manchester City in the day’s early kick-off.
For many years the physical encounters experienced when travelling north to face Bolton Wanderers proved too much for a talented, but ultimately fragile, Arsenal side. These results proved to characterise their seasons as they looked impressive but when stern questions were asked of them, they ultimately fell short. With four consecutive league wins against the Trotters, that particular stumbling block appears to have been overcome, but the mantle has now been taken up by Stoke. Last season, a comprehensive home victory was followed up by a narrow defeat, and if history is to repeat itself, this could prove costly indeed to the Gunners’ chances of a first title in six years. Not only do they need the three points at stake, but the psychological impact of the result cannot be underestimated as a win would generate momentum as they approach the title run-in. Yet, a defeat would send out a clear message to future opponents, that with the right attitude and approach they can be beaten. With fixtures against Burnley, Hull City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City all on the horizon, Arsenal will aim to enter the sequence with real momentum. After all, if confidence is high, their passing game means that they can at times be virtually unplayable.
In Arsenal’s last league visit to Stoke, Rory Delap’s now infamous long throws created both of Stoke’s goals and severely troubled an Arsenal defence not exactly blessed with height. Whilst nothing can be done to remedy this apparent deficiency, a strong command of the penalty box from the goalkeeper would make all the difference. However, goalkeeping has not been one of Arsenal’s strong points this season. The manager has identified that “the difference is the goalkeeper is always in the negative publicity… If a goalkeeper has a fantastic game and makes one mistake, he is a villain,” and he has a point. But in top flight football, that one mistake can be so very costly. After Lukasz Fabianski’s two rudimentary errors during a disastrous showing in the Champions League, the comment was made mainly to protect the young Pole, and facing Stoke would hardly be ideal for him in this regard. As such, Wenger has to rely on Manuel Almunia playing through the pain and risking further injury to a damaged finger. The Gunners will need not only their keeper to be on top form, but also a committed performance throughout the side – something that was decisively lacking in the FA Cup exit at the hands of the Potters.
This week the club have been celebrating 25 years of their ‘Arsenal in the Community’ initiative as the club have acknowledged their responsibility to the local area. The ability to provide this has been based on financial stability, a topic that Wenger has been typically outspoken on, this time in relation to Portsmouth’s current plight: “The Premier League must guarantee a minimum payment. You cannot pretend you are the best league in the world if a team stops competing in the middle of the season. It’s impossible.” As with his comment on goalkeepers, the manager not only has a point, but an agenda. Should Portsmouth fold, Arsenal would lose the six points already accrued against them, and as such, would fall a further three points behind league leaders Chelsea. Wenger’s comment about the size of the league is an attempt to massage the ego of the Premier League executives and prompt them into action. In light of Arsenal’s status as the blueprint of how to run a modern club, it would be the ultimate irony if they were to lose out on silverware in the fallout from another team living beyond their means.
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