Stoke City 1 – 1 Arsenal
1 – 0 Crouch (8)
1 – 1 van Persie (15)
On the face of it, a point at Stoke is a disappointing result. Contrary to the claims of Tony Pulis, top six teams do win there and have done this season. In the wider context of the season, the point was a good result leaving Arsenal directly in control of their own destiny; games in hand is an over-rated currency this morning. That might be different by this time next weekend but those are the problems for another day.
Not winning on a day when Newcastle capitulated is a disappointment though. That is compounded by the knowledge that Arsenal had enough of the game to have won. Tempering that is knowing that Chelsea can torpedo Newcastle with a win at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, not quite sinking them but holing their challenge to the extent of them limping over the line. One down, two to go – or in an ideal world, a draw which effectively eliminates both.
Arsenal started brightly. Five minutes in and van Persie was freed by Benayoun, the Dutchman reciprocated but his on-loan colleague shot tamely. Rosicky then clipped in a cross and Begovic scrambled the ball to safety from van Persie’s header. The experienced heartbeat of Arsenal’s midfield was purring, prompting and spikily combatting their less subtle opponents.
And being Arsenal, those misses were duly punished. Little surprise as Crouch buried his header, Szczesny well beaten as the lanky striker was not put under enough pressure to divert his connection.
Any euphoria felt by the home support quickly dissipated as Arsenal recovered quickly, equalising on the quarter of hour mark. It was a simple affair, Rosicky and Benayoun combining to contrive space for the Czech to deliver a cross to van Persie, the Dutchman’s control of the situation taking him into space before delivering his finish. That was his 35th of the season, more than Stoke have managed in the league collectively this campaign. Their threat became neutered.
Gervinho had been causing problems with the directness of his running and twice spurned decent opportunities. If he could add the calmness he showed against Mali for his country, then it is but a short step to twenty goals per season. As it is, his recent appearances hint at returning to the consistency which was rudely interrupted in Winter.
For all of their dominance, Arsenal were not creating a lot of clear openings as the first half peetered out. Equally, Stoke were not troubling the visitors defence, even from their trademark set-pieces. Arsenal were comfortably in control. The second half continued in the same pattern with van Persie unable to beat Begovic with his header. Chances flew over the bar to safety after that whilst Gibbs on a rare foray forward found his route to goal blocked by a neolithic remnant.
Stoke still offered little in response and the match crawled into its final stages. Benayoun combined with van Persie around the Stoke area and as the Israeli ran into the area, contact was made by Whelan with Benayoun going to ground. A penalty? It probably would have drawn a free kick elsewhere which makes the decision not to award the spot kick baffling. That the contact was minimal and in fairness probably not enough to genuinely send Benayoun to ground makes it understandable. That is tempered by Foy not booking the Arsenal player; if he felt it was exaggerated, surely Benayoun was guilty of Ungentlemanly Conduct? OrSimulation. Don’t even go there with that one.
Chances were traded, Jerome for Stoke, Vermaelen for Arsenal before Crouch beat Szczesny to the ball but Sagna produced an excellent defensive clearance, a pure example of why he is the best defender in the Premier League. Sorry Laurent, but he is. This was deemed to be the trickiest of the final three fixtures; Arsenal came through, the disappointment of this season just from knowing that their superiority was beyond their opponents comprehension. When even Pulis admits that Arsenal were the better team, it is a racing certainty that this is the case.
And what of the Stoke supporters. Like many of their counterparts, they are obsessed with the cult of the manager. Arsène noted of the abuse he received at the match,
The only thing I think sometimes when I leave the pitch at the end of the game and people insult you or are angry or hateful, I’d just like a little picture and send it home to you. Show that to your son or your daughter, and then come back next week and see if you would do it again, if they are proud of you.
It could equally be applied to the derision served on Aaron Ramsey who performed admirably under those conditions. Pulis resorted to type by trying to paint Shawcross as the victim rather than the perpetrator. Any ridicule though was delivered to them piercingly and unintentionally, by Gary Lineker. His attempt to ape Stoke humour showed them in all their glory, just how laughable their attempt at humour was.
Back to the cave paintings, apes and orcs.