Premier League | Britannia Stadium | Sat 1 Mar | 3pm
The perfect setting for a Wenger meltdown.
Humiliated by Liverpool. Outclassed in the Champions League. 'Fans' booing the players off after the bore draw with Manchester United. Their best player looking shattered. February was certainly a rum old time for Arsenal, with the wins over cannon fodder Crystal Palace and Sunderland at the start and end of the month merely acting as reasonably tasty bread slices bookending an otherwise dreadful dog dirt sandwich.
- Man City 1-0 Stoke (Prem)
- Stoke 1-1 Swansea (Prem)
- So'ton 2-2 Stoke (Prem)
- Stoke 2-1 Man Utd (Prem)
- S'land 1-0 Stoke (Prem)
- Arsenal 4-1 S'land (Prem)
- Arsenal 0-2 Bayern (CL)
- Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool (FAC)
- Arsenal 0-0 Man Utd (Prem)
- Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal (Prem)
But how swiftly the doom-mongers mong. Visits to Anfield and Manchester City aside, the Gunners have had an outstanding Premier League season and are still to significantly falter – especially against opposition further down the table. Those long-faced Arsenal supporters you find everywhere – needlessly miserable, like Paris Hilton weeping about her handbag dog stubbing its paw on a superyacht – need to count their blessings, or have their mums tell them that worse things happen at sea: you’re only one point from the top of the table, and what about those people with no arms or legs, eh?
Drawing with United is not that bad. Bayern Munich was hardly a humiliation. Liverpool was barmy, but March – with Spurs, Chelsea and City lining up – will decide how this term is truly judged. A collapse is possible. Perhaps even likely. But it hasn’t happened yet. Spring is sprung. Smell the run-in. Wenger has largely got his tactics spot on away from home this year – his side have notched eight wins, more than anyone bar Spurs curiously, drawn twice and lost just three. He’ll certainly need to get them right against a Stoke side that have only succumbed to defeat twice from 13 Britannia fixtures.
The Arsenal gaffer proved a point with the clinical dismantling of Sunderland last weekend and is sticking, as ever, to his guns. “Tomas Rosicky’s goal was one of the best, and one of the two Olivier Giroud goals is a great goal,” he gushed. “That is the way we want to play, and when we score it makes you happy, because it enforces the way you want to play.”
Stoke’s February was moribund in comparison with Arsenal’s – they narrowly lost to Man City and bagged draws with Swansea and Southampton. Liverpool aside, they haven’t lost at the Britannia since September: their shocking away form has been their downfall this season, and hovering three points above the relegation zone, 11 matches without a clean sheet, things are a certainly perilous.
But as Hughes acknowledged after the Man City defeat, losses to the top four cannot be considered truly damaging: upcoming meetings with West Ham, Norwich, Fulham, Cardiff and West Brom are of far more relevance. A home point, then, would please Hughes without delighting him, while adding to the woes of the woe-is-us brigade in the red half of north London.
Arsenal’s injury list should shrink dramatically. March 1 is slated for the recovery of seven of their 10 crocked men: Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny, Kieran Gibbs and Thomas Vermaelen could all return. Aaron Ramsey is a couple of weeks away, while Theo Walcott and Abou Diaby relax with the Arsenal treatment room’s record signing, Kim Kallstrom. Man of steel Robert Huth should be fit for Stoke, but the Potters' Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi remains knee-nobbled.
Player to watch: Oliver Giroud (Arsenal)
Arsenal’s lack of strength in depth has been severely tested over recent months, and with Ozil currently a little on the weary side, the dapper French goal-machine – who was also rested in the most correct sense of the word for a couple of games before storming back against Sunderland – must keep the goals flowing.
His application and character were praised by the manager following the Black Cats win, where he shot twice (and scored twice), as well as completing 24 passes, winning 4 aerial duals from 6 and creating a chance. Giroud now looks sharp where merely a month ago he was a little laboured. Should Ozil return from his mini-break as effectively, Arsenal have a shot.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Arsenal 3-1 Stoke (Prem, Sep 13)
- Arsenal 1-0 Stoke (Prem, Feb 13)
- Stoke 0-0 Arsenal (Prem, Aug 12)
- Stoke 1-1 Arsenal (Prem, Apr 12)
- Arsenal 3-1 Stoke (Prem, Oct 11)
There’s form between the fiery Celt and passionate Gaul: remember the sarcastic wave Mark gave Arsene down the tunnel in 2005 after the Gunners defeated his Blackburn side in the FA Cup? Or Wenger’s snub of Hughes’ handshake in 2009 after Man City knocked his youngsters out of the League Cup (“perhaps I have no professional courtesy”)?
The last meeting between these two men saw Wenger outwit Hughes with a 3-1 victory at the Emirates (Ozil had a hand in all three goals and his gaffer resembled something of a genius), and some civility at least.
However, there’s every chance the two could end up grappling on the touchline here should there be the faintest suggestion of a sleight.
TIPS & TRENDS
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Facts and figures
- Stoke have been level at half-time in all of their last 6 home games against top-six teams.
- Arsenal have won 10 of their last 12 trips to bottom-half sides, including 6 wins to nil and four 1-0 scores.
- Stoke have failed to score in 6 of their last 11 home games following a defeat, 8 of the games have had fewer than 3 goals.
- 12 of Arsenal’s 16 trips to bottom-half teams since the start of last season have seen fewer than 3 goals.
Best Bet: Half Time Draw @ 2.35
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Arsenal to edge it 2-1. Hughes to throw Arsene’s spectacles into a puddle. Wenger to write something nasty about Mark’s mum being a bike in the away toilets.