By Phil Gregory
Arsenal travel up to Stoke on Sunday, ready for a game that has been one of our more controversial matches in recent years. Their “robust” approach to the game irritated many Arsenal fans prior to Shawcross snapping Ramsey’s leg, so the atmosphere promises to be testy. Indeed, the temperature will be ratcheted up just a little more by the knowledge that Ramsey is very likely to start the game in lieu of Fabregas.
Onto injuries then. In addition to Fabregas, Nasri has been ruled out of the tie with hamstring trouble, while Diaby is sidelined with a calf injury. Doubts surround the fitness of Clichy and Djourou, though the latter is looking likely to be available with the main concern centering on Clichy.
On a positive note Thomas Vermaelen may be in the squad though his chances of starting probably rest of Djourou’s fitness. While that would certainly be speedy return to first team action for Thomas, Wenger stated that due to the nature of his injury, he isn’t rusty or restricted in his movement.
Onto the line-up then:
Sagna Djourou Koscielny Gibbs
Walcott Van Persie Arshavin
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Szcznesy continues in goal, with the only likely change to the back four being Gibbs’ replacement of Clichy if the Frenchman doesn’t pass his fitness test. In front of the back four are Song and Wilshere, with Ramsey coming in for Fabregas. Further forward, Arshavin replaces the injured Nasri on the left, with Walcott on the opposite flank and Van Persie playing through the middle.
Despite a fictional reputation for “not liking it up us” (pundit speak for losing when playing teams who happily kick the man and not the player), we’ve won the last four Premier League meetings against Stoke. Admittedly the recent home game was a bit of a nail biter, but that is an excellent record to have going into the tie.
Obviously the big talking point for this game is Stoke’s FA Cup appearance six days later. Some have speculated that that may mean they rest players versus Arsenal, but with the best part of a week to go until that tie it seems unlikely. Perhaps certain players may have that tie on their mind when going in for challenges, aware that any sending off would rule them out of the final.
If I’m honest though, I can’t imagine an uncommitted performance from Stoke and just hope the referee doesn’t go easy with the cards, thinking he doesn’t want to have to make a Stoke player miss the match of their lives.
Tactically, we know what to expect from Stoke really. They’ll look to bypass the midfield and win the knockdowns, so the key is pressing the back four. Giving them less time to play their pass forward means they’re likely to end up hitting and hoping, allowing our intelligent defenders loose balls to intercept rather than aerial challenges to contend.
Moreover, if we press well enough the Stoke players mightn’t have that forward option available, and anything that gets Stoke playing the ball at the back gives us a great chance to steal it and make a chance. Pressing is key here.
They also like their wingers, though Etherington is out and faces a race to be fit for the FA Cup final. They don’t get forward much from fullback, so our wide attackers plus fullbacks should be able to cope with Stoke’s wider players. Vigilance from the centre backs will be vital with the likes of Jones and Carew – who may return from injury for this game – are more than capable in the air.
Stoke should be a side that we see off without too much difficulty but a couple of absentees means things may be a little trickier than we imagine. 2-1 to the Arsenal for my money.
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