MATCH WINNER: Lukas Podolski of Arsenal
ARSENAL eked out a 1-0 win against feisty Stoke City at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon. A deflected Lukas Podolski free kick in the 78th minute was the difference between these two teams as the home side kept their Champions League hopes alive.
There has been no love lost between these two clubs since Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey was rushed to hospital in February 2010 with a badly broken leg after being hit by an X-rated Ryan Shawcross tackle at Stoke.
The City skipper was sent off for his challenge. And while concerned Arsenal players and medics surrounded the young Welshman, Shawcross left the pitch in tears. Today there were three Stoke bookings and lots of crunching tackles to continue the bad blood.
Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs was ruled out for up to six weeks with a thigh injury, but new signing Spain international Nacho Monreal replaced him at left-back and gave a competent first performance.
After a run of just one win and only five points from as many Premier League games, Arsenal's record of having always qualified for the Champions League under Arsene Wenger looks increasingly under threat. But this win gives them a timely boost as the Premier League season goes into the final furlong.
Scoring goals hasn't been too much of a concern for the Gunners this season but the recent defensive form will certainly be a worry. They've conceded 29 goals all season but 13 of them have come in the last eight Premier League matches. They've also gone behind in each of their last five. They managed to claim a slender win today and keep a clean sheet so manager Arsene Wenger can enjoy his Match of the Day highlights.
After an early Jonathan Walters shot it was a case of the Stoke City custodian, the highly-rated Asmir Begovic, against Arsenal.
The Bosnian ‘stopper kept out two decent efforts by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a header by Laurent Koscielny to deny Arsenal a merited lead. Begovic’s second save to deny the Ox was top class – and spectacular - after a Abou Diaby inspired move.
Stoke offered little save from their customary brave and organised defending. Manager Tony Pulis will have been pleased with his team’s effort but must have known that they needed to offer more during the second period. They didn’t.
Apart from the worrying amount of possession and chances that Arsenal created, Pulis must have been equally concerned about the head injury sustained by Walters after an accidental clash of heads with new boy Monreal.
After several minutes of on-field attention, Walters was bandaged up and bravely carried on. That left City with two players with bandages as central defender Robert Huth started the match with protection around his head.
The second period did not see Arsenal at their free-flowing best but they still deserved to score with both in-form Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud at the hub of their best chances.
The home side’s fortunes were to change with the introduction of both Podolski and Santi Cazorla in the 68th minute. The experienced pair added skill and verve to Arsenal’s bid to claim all the points with the German international striking the winner from 18 yards out, which unfortunately for the visitors took a nick off City defender Geoff Cameron.
Arsenal’s joy at the goal looked short lived as the referee’s assistant had raised his flag. However, to the relief of the majority in the stadium, referee Chris Foy – after consulting with his colleague – pointed to the centre circle to confirm the goal.
The Potters' last win away to the Gunners was a 1-0 victory at Highbury in August 1981 and in truth they never looked like changing that dismal record this afternoon.
Most of the 59, 872 crowd went home happy as Arsenal continue to dream of a coveted Champions League berth come may.