Gunners show their grit at snowy Stoke
One win in eight visits to the Britannia Stadium for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger.
It’s the stat that explains why Gunners fans dread the long journey to Stoke more than most away trips.
The Britannia is often portrayed as one of the most hostile locations for other teams to play at, a feared assault course for Premier League players to negotiate.
“When Tony Pulis was their manager, Stoke seemed to enjoy bullying opponents at the Britannia”
This year’s expedition to the Potteries from north London was accompanied by snow and ice, adding to the dread felt by the travelling hordes.
I have family in Manchester which I go to see occasionally and I’ve had the opportunity to make several trips to Stoke to support Arsenal over the years, usually heading back south after yet another disappointment.
Would it be different this season? With Arsenal tipped by many for their first title since 2004, getting something at Stoke City would surely be a good omen for their ambitions.
Would the Gunners be helped by Stoke’s more attractive style of play under Mark Hughes? When Tony Pulis was their manager, they seemed to enjoy bullying opponents at the Britannia.
One thing that didn’t help them was the absence of the in-form Mesut Ozil. The German midfielder missed out because of a foot injury, allowing Mohamed Elneny to make his debut. The 23-year-old Egyptian recently completed his transfer from FC Basel.
After a 3-3 draw at Liverpool in their previous match, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started in the number 1o role, with Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey in the starting line up – the latter making this his 250th appearance for Arsenal – at the hub of midfield.
The hosts were unchanged from the line-up that defeated Norwich City. Stoke’s combination of pace and strength has left many teams with an uphill battle this season especially at home, with victories over both Manchester clubs and Chelsea. Would Arsenal be their next victim?
The match got off to a slow start, and it took 20 minutes for the first serious threat from Stoke as Jonathan Walters found Marko Arnautovic outside the Arsenal box. The Austrian’s inventive flick made space for Afellay 20 yards out but his dangerous-looking strike went a yard or so wide.
“Butland was called upon again shortly afterwards when he was forced to tip over a fizzing effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain”
That seemed to spur Arsenal to switch on, and they pushed up the other end and created the best chance of the half.
Joel Campbell was the innovator, finding space 25 yards out before slipping the ball into the path of Olivier Giroud.
The Frenchman got clear of the hosts’ back four but saw his well-placed effort gathered up by Butland, who had charged out to narrow the angle.
The young England goalie was called upon again shortly afterwards when he was forced to tip over a fizzing effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain. At the other end, Petr Cech saved Joselu’s header as an evenly-matched first period ended.
Arsenal could have taken the lead only 70 seconds after the restart. Again, it was Giroud who went close, with a strong header from Ramsey’s corner which forced Butland to make a outstanding reflex save at the near post.
“Arsenal weren’t losing, and their solid performance was a big improvement on what their fans were so used to seeing at Stoke”
The visitors were making progress, as Giroud and then Theo Walcott both had penalty claims waved away before Stoke rallied.
With Nacho Monreal pushing up, the home side counter-attacked, working the ball around well to make a good opportunity for Joselu who cleverly turned away from Laurent Koscienly before seeing his well-hit strike tipped away by Cech at full stretch.
Bojan looked set to take advantage of the rebound but the ever-alert Cech shuffled back to divert his shot wide.
Joselu then forced Cech into another fantastic save midway through the second half, although the visitors were by now pushing up into the final third without making it count.
But Arsenal weren’t losing, and their solid performance was a big improvement on what their fans were so used to seeing at Stoke.
Cech has, of course, made a big difference, keeping his team in games and earning valuable points for the Gunners which might have slipped from their grasp.
“For once, the journey home from Stoke was not a completely deflating one for Arsenal fans”
With the match becoming more stretched, Wenger brought on Alex Iwobi. The 19-year-old striker helped make a late opportunity for the Gunners, providing Oxlade-Chamberlain with a decent through ball to play into the lively Campbell who agonisingly curled it over the bar.
There was time for one more opportunity for Stoke but, fortunately for Arsenal, Ramsey was correctly positioned to clear Walters’ direct header off the line before Cech booted Joselu’s rebound shot clear to guarantee the point.
So an even contest ended at 0-0, thanks mainly to some world-class goalkeeping towards the end of the match. Arsenal kept their title challenge on track and, for once, the journey home from Stoke was not a completely deflating one for their fans.