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Arsenal tough it out to stay in Champions League hunt

Monday, 4 February 2013 - 4:54pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Much about Stoke City's trip to the Emirates on Saturday felt familiar, except for one fundamental but crucial difference.

Verbal sparring between the managers, a dangerous Ryan Shawcross tackle, hostility in the stands and an incident that on Monday will require the attention of the Football Association's disciplinary department. Much about Stoke City's trip to the Emirates on Saturday felt familiar, except for one fundamental but crucial difference.

Whereas before, whatever their technical advantages, Arsenal have often looked inhibited and even intimidated in losing three times to Stoke since 2008, they never once took a backward step. This was summed up by the game's main flashpoint.

Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal captain, had been guilty of a bad tackle from behind on Michael Owen. The former England striker reacted, throwing a half-hearted punch that connected with Arteta's arm, only to be met with a rather more forceful shove in the chest from a snarling Jack Wilshere.

Shawcross, who is best known in north London for his leg-breaking tackle on Aaron Ramsey in 2010, was also confronted by several Arsenal players after he had earlier escaped with a booking for a studs-up challenge on Laurent Koscielny. Theo Walcott's willingness to keep running at Stoke, even amid some tough treatment from Andy Wilkinson, further illustrated the point.

While Arsenal might be struggling to find the fluency of previous years, this is a more experienced, mature and physically imposing group of players. They are less likely to be bullied and, only now, does Arsene Wenger admit that it was something he addressed.

"We dealt well with it," he said. "We were a bit younger before, more inexperienced. With Bacary Sagna, Nacho, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at the back we have some stature. They are not small. We played Abou Diaby as well because in front of the defence he can win some headers.

"In England you have to cope with all kinds of football without losing the quality you want to play, and that is not always easy. If you have 10 Santi Cazorlas, you would have a very good technical team but, against Stoke, you would struggle. I think it is more mental preparation. You have to be ready. Stoke are good on the second ball, so your midfielders have to be good on the second ball, to fight for it and let you play your game."

Arsenal succeeded in that regard and duly dominated possession, only to be regularly thwarted by Stoke's admirable defending. As a final three, there can be few better units in the Premier League then centre-backs Shawcross and Robert Huth and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.

For all Arsenal's pressure in open play, it took a huge deflection off Geoff Cameron for Lukas Podolski to score the winner from a 78th-minute free-kick.

David Bryan, the assistant referee, had raised his flag as Walcott was in an offside position but Chris Foy ruled that there had been no interference with play. Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, later noted how Arsenal's players had surrounded the referee but the correct decision was made.

Arsenal's win also further intensifies the competition for a top four finish. With Chelsea losing at Newcastle, Wenger predicted that the European champions were now part of a five-way battle with Arsenal, Totteham and Everton for the final two Champions League places. "I said that you cannot predict the results of anybody and that's why it will be down to consistency," said Wenger.

If his team maintain Saturday's resilience, that consistency should come.

 


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