I don’t know if I can ever dislike a football team any more than I do Stoke City. Fat Sam’s teams run them close as do Birmingham. But none of those teams can quite reach the level of Arsenal’s next opponents. Dislike is actually a really mild word for my feelings towards Tony Pulis and his bunch of thugs. But I’ll try to keep my feelings out of this and try to focus on the football/rugby.
Van Persie and Koscielny have been ruled out of this one. I guess both were unavailable for the FA Cup tie as well but it never came up because of the rotation. That does explain the inclusion of Miquel. More importantly, we are likely to see a centre-back pairing of Squillaci and Djourou against Stoke. These two haven’t played together that often but have done well in the few games that they’ve played. I also expect Sagna to keep his place while Clichy and Szczesny should come back into the starting eleven.
This game will be the first time the young Pole comes up against players who will foul him at every opportunity. It will be intriguing to see how he handles that. If he can dominate his box in this game, something that will be needed given the strengths of the opposition, he will have passed his toughest test yet, even tougher than Barcelona as this one will involve illegal challenges. Luckily for him this is a home game and Stoke don’t do that well away from home. Even then I expect the youngster to be quite busy, especially early on.
The midfield should see the first choice trio, Song-Cesc-Wilshere, back together. Up front Nasri and Walcott should have a different striker between them. I’d go for Bendtner ahead of Chamakh as the Dane has already played and done well against these thugs. His physical presence will be an asset in both boxes.
Expected starting line-up,
Szczesny – Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Wilshere – Walcott, Bendtner, Nasri
Tactically, the initial exchanges will be extremely important. The Gunners have to go out on the pitch and show that they are ready for the battle. The visitors will look for any signs of weakness, and if the Arsenal players aren’t fully committed in the 50-50 challenges or individual battles, it will give them a boost.
Le Boss stressed on the importance of dominating possession in such a game and it’s not difficult to see why.
Stoke will try to play the long balls down the channels in an effort to win free-kicks, corners, and throws in the attacking areas. Arsenal have to keep them pinned back and minimize the number of men they can get forward.
Stoke do have one genuine quality and that is their defensive organization and work ethic. It will not be easy for Arsenal to open them up. Van Persie will be dearly missed in this game but I’m hoping Bendtner will deliver in a central role as he did in the away game last season. Some good quality crosses from Sagna and Walcott will certainly help.
Arsene might pick Chamakh but it will be a mistake in my opinion.
There will be more than usual grappling in the penalty box. I can only hope the Arsenal players will not lose concentration as the ball is flying around. Conceding a soft goal to an unmarked player at the back post is most infuriating. The smaller players can do their part while defending set-pieces if they are alert to the knock-ons and loose balls.
I’d also like to see the central defenders take charge of the balls being hoofed down the wings. They should reach them ahead of the strikers and should try to keep possession under pressure. Hoofing it up-field or kicking it out will only motivate the opposition.
I’m not sure whether Lee Mason, who was supposed to officiate the original fixture in Dec, will be the one to take charge of this game or not. I will be worried if it is Mason.
Arsenal have done fairly well at home against Stoke who are not good travellers but I expect this game to be close with no more than 1 goal separating the sides. A bigger win will be a mighty impressive performance from the Gunners and will only be possible if Cesc has a brilliant game. I don’t want to dwell on the possibility of a loss but it is possible if Arsenal don’t turn up with the attitude of defeating 12/13 men.
More than the result though, I’d like to see all the players come through with their limbs intact.