Finally! After a two week break, Arsenal are back in action!
Stoke City have been known as our antipode ever since the days of Tony Pulis whose team had looked more like a rugby team than a real football team. Things have changed a bit since Mark Hughes took over as the Welshman has tried to add as many players with flair as possible to shake off that ugly reputation inherited from the Pulis era.
The truth is, it’s going slowly for them. The way Marko Arnautović injured Mathieu Debuchy in the last clash between the sides at the Emirates and Charlie Adam’s horrendous attempt to remove Alexis Sanchez’s head from the rest of his body proved that the spirit of Pulis has remains even if they now have a lot of ex-Barcelona players with flair and technique.
And yet, it’s an ex-Bayern man who will be their biggest threat. Xherdan Shaqiri is the man to watch in their squad. He is a skillful dribbler, strong and can score with either foot. He won’t hesitate to unleash his long shots to create problems for Petr Čech. He didn’t have the best spell at Bayern and Inter respectively but he is a top talent. Francis Coquelin will have a difficult job on his hands as he will have to be careful not to get sent off before the clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next week.
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Mame Biram Diouf has shown his abilities since joining Stoke with his spectacular winning goal at the Etihad against Manchester City last season being the highlight of his Premier League spell so far. And there is Peter Crouch who has scored too many goals (8) against Arsenal in his career already (via transfermarkt.co.uk). Fortunately, Charlie Adam’s absence means our players are less likely to get injured. Another notable absence is the eternal talent Ibrahim Afellay. The Dutch winger has already tasted a victory at the Emirates while playing for Schalke and it’s good thing he won’t be on the pitch. Finally, Ryan Shawcross won’t get the deserved boos today as he is also out due to injury.
Arsenal have never spilled a single point against Stoke at the Emirates in the Premier League and our 3:0 victory in January was arguably our best performance last season (via Arsenal.com). We were totally in control of the game from the first minute to the last and the final margin should have been much greater. Even if we have failed to score at the Emirates in five out of the last six matches, we should be in charge of the game and win it.
Petr Čech is expected to pick up his third consecutive clean sheet but the Czech goalkeeper is probably more anxious to taste his first official victory at the Emirates since joining Arsenal.
Hector Bellerin or Mathieu Debuchy – that might be a dilemma for Arsene Wenger. Debuchy was injured against Stoke in the last clash between the sides by one of the dirtiest moves I’ve ever seen. That’s why Debuchy might be very motivated to show his best against The Potters. Bellerin, on the other hand, has established himself as a member of the starting eleven.
Laurent Koscielny scored a header against Stoke in this fixture last season and might wish to give himself a similar late present for his 30th birthday.
Gabriel has shown why Arsenal signed him last January. His combative spirit and pace should give him the edge over the doubtful Per Mertesacker. The German has returned to the team after 18 days (via Arsenal.com) but I don’t see him in the starting line-up today.
Nacho Monreal has been one of our most consistent performers in 2015 and his place in the starting eleven is cemented.
Francis Coquelin will have to keep Shaqiri at bay and deny opportunities for long shots. We have conceded three goals this season and two of those came from outside of the box.
Santi Cazorla will control the game from the deep midfield position and hope for a more prolific performance from his team mates. Cazorla has created more chances (16) than any other player in the league (via squawka.com) but doesn’t have a single assist by his name which says a lot about our conversion rate.
Mesut Özil has also created a high number of chances (12) that his team mates – with the honourable exception of Olivier Giroud’s skillful finish against Crystal Palace – failed to convert (via squawka.com).
Aaron Ramsey has scored three goals against Stoke (via Arsenal.com). His history against them and idiotic boos he receives at Britannia for getting injured (?!) by one of Pulis’ thugs five years ago makes us want more and more. Ryan Shawcross – who made a horror tackle that could have ended Ramsey’s career – won’t be on the pitch due to injury but that shouldn’t stop Ramsey from scoring.
Alexis Sánchez is yet to find his form from last season which is understandable. He scored twice against Stoke in January and it would be great if he opens his account today. His desire and passion are unquestionable but he is yet to find his shooting boots.
Finally, Olivier Giroud is likely to start today in order to give us a physical presence on the pitch. I will point out again that we haven’t scored in the last five matches at the Emirates with Giroud leading our attack (via Squawka.com) but Arsene Wenger won’t care. Theo Walcott would be a more reasonable choice given that he offers a lot more pace for Cazorla’s and Özil’s passes behind the defence. Theo led the attack in our only home victory in the last six matches and scored a hat-trick. Even if it was a bit of a dead rubber against West Brom, it should be enough for Wenger to consider playing Theo from the first minute today.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is likely to start on the bench even if his impact in our victory at Newcastle was crucial as it was his shot that was deflected into the net. We don’t have too many options with Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky sidelined with serious injuries so Joel Campbell might finally get a chance to prove his quality.
I believe we might see a goal-fest today. 4:2 for Arsenal, with goals from Giroud, Bellerin, Cazorla (penalty) and Ramsey for us while Shaqiri and Crouch are the most likely scorers for the visitors.