Club Focus – Stoke – Grudge match at the Emirates

Nine months have passed since Aaron Ramsey suffered a horrendous leg fracture at the Britannia Stadium. Much vitriol has been exchanged by both clubs in the intervening period, but Saturday will mark their first meeting since that fateful Ryan Shawcross challenge.

In truth, enmity between the sides had existed long before the incident. Stoke’s 2-1 win over the Gunners in November 2008 had seen a running battle between Shawcross and Emmanuel Adebayor, injuries to Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott after robust challenges from Stoke players, and a red card for Robin van Persie after petulantly launching himself at Thomas Sorensen. In the days following the fiery encounter, Arsene Wenger branded the Potters’ players “cowards”, and Tony Pulis responded by quoting Abraham Lincoln at the Frenchman, accusing him of “trying to fool all of the people all of the time.”

A truce of sorts appeared to come into effect after this, until the Ramsey affair reignited hostilities, Wenger unleashing his fury at Shawcross (“spare me how nice he is”) and Pulis leaping to the youngster’s defence. It has been all out war between the two managers since then. Earlier this season, Wenger launched an unprovoked attack on the Potters, claiming that their style was more akin to rugby than football, which led to the Midlanders seeking legal action. The two have sniped at each other in the media at various intervals since.

It is interesting to note, however, that two clubs with such seemingly opposing philosophies have this term taken baby steps closer to one another’s ideologies. Wenger’s Arsenal, for years, were vulnerable to being bullied into submission by physical sides, yet have finally added some much-needed bite to their footballing ballet in recent months, thanks to the emergence of Alex Song and, to some extent, Jack Wilshire, whose elegance on the ball masks a flinty tenacity in the tackle. Indeed, Arsenal have the worst disciplinary record in the Premier League so far this season, and a series of X-rated challenges from the likes of Emmanuel Eboue, Cesc Fabregas and Wilshere have made a mockery of Wenger’s perennial complaints about the dangerous play of other teams.

Stoke, meanwhile, have shown signs of trying to become more enterprising in their attacking play. The addition of Jermaine Pennant on the right flank has made the Potteries outfit one of the few teams in the Premier League to deploy two out-and-out flying wingers, while the acquisition of a ball-playing midfielder in Marc Wilson, as well as a somewhat limited but significant renaissance for Tuncay, underline Pulis’ willingness to explore more positive options in the name of progress.

It is unfortunate that all eyes will be on Shawcross at the Emirates this weekend. The young defender is almost certain to be the target of the home fans’ ire. Yet few players were as devastated about Ramsey’s injury as Shawcross on that March evening, and replays have made clear that there was no malice in his challenge. Nevertheless, for a player with aspirations of playing for his country, his response to the hostile atmosphere will provide an interesting test for the Stoke captain.

With both teams aiming to put disappointing single goal defeats behind them, the stage is set for an explosive encounter in North London tomorrow afternoon.

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