By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal edged their way to within a point of leaders Manchester United with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Stoke on Wednesday night.
But the victory may have come at a price.
Sebastien Squillaci’s eighth-minute header was enough to secure all three points. However, Cesc Fabregas hobbled off shortly afterwards with a hamstring injury. In the second half, Theo Walcott was stretchered off with a concerned look on his face having been brought down on the edge of the area.
After the game, Arsène Wenger confirmed that the winger would miss the Carling Cup Final with a sprained ankle. The prognosis on Fabregas will have to wait a little longer.
It is testament to Arsenal that they shook off these problems to secure a crucial victory on the night.
Stoke were Stoke – organised, robust, committed – but Arsenal matched them in those areas and made their class count when it mattered.
These sorts of ground-out 1-0s are said to win you titles. Time will tell there.
But this result is further evidence that Arsenal are the real deal this season.
This was the first of five games in 14 days – a spell that includes Sunday’s showpiece and ends with the game at Barcelona. It is a massive time for Arsenal and, as expected, Wenger brought back the bulk of the side that had been rested at Leyton Orient on Sunday.
In all there were seven changes. Only Alex Song, Bacary Sagna, Squillaci and Nicklas Bendtner retained their places. Wojciech Szczesny, Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Gael Clichy and Johan Djourou all came in.
Manchester United were otherwise engaged in the Champions League this evening but will play twice in the Premier League before Wenger’s men run out again in the same competition.
The Frenchman does not like to label any game as ‘must-win’ but this one was about as close as you could get if Arsenal wanted to retain control of their own destiny in the title race.
And the home side began as if they were fully aware of the magnitude of the fixture.
In the opening four and half minutes, Walcott would have three opportunities - one crystal-clear and two half-chances.
The best came first.
With less than 70 seconds on the clock, Wilshere found Fabregas on the edge of the area. Perceptive as ever, he spotted Walcott on the right. The skipper threaded a pass through to leave the Englishman clear but needing to beat Asmir Begovic from an acute angle.
He did so. But his cross-shot bounced off the inside of the far post, back across goal and into the hands of the keeper. Fist-gnawing stuff.
A couple minutes later, Walcott volleyed over when off-balance. Then he seemed to be beating a couple of Stoke defenders for pace but was caught as he shaped to shoot and sidefooted tamely into the hands of the keeper.
Stoke replied with a couple of Rory Delap throw-ins but, in the eighth minute, Arsenal grabbed the lead they deserved.
Wilshere fired over a corner from the right. It was touched on to Bendtner at the far post. He returned the ball into the midst of the six-yard box for Squillaci to nod home from close-range. It was the Frenchman’s second goal of the season and he celebrated like it meant something.
It was everything Arsenal needed but, five minutes later, they would suffer a crucial blow – they lost their captain.
Fabregas pulled up holding his knee and was soon replaced by Arshavin. The Russian took up the role on the left of midfield with Nasri moving into the middle.
The goal and the injury seemed to affect Arsenal. The home side were in complete control - on the half-hour the statistics said they had enjoyed an incredible 74 per cent possession – however their build-up play lead to nothing concrete.
In the 37th minute, they were nearly caught. In a rare foray forward Jonathan Walters nodded the ball back to John Carew 25 yards out. The Norwegian fired a thunderous volley toward the far corner but Szczesny threw himself to his right and made the block. It was a wonderful stop given he had been underemployed thus far.
At the break, Stoke needed to do something. Almost like Orient as the weekend, they seemed happy to cede territory and get men behind the ball. It was a risky ploy given the attacking options Arsenal had at their disposal.
Therefore the visitors were understandably more expansive in the second half. In the opening minutes, they nearly drew level from a move that started with a Delap throw-in - but not in the way you might think.
This one was tossed down the line for Jermaine Pennant. His cross was nodded goalwards by Ryan Shawcross at the near post but, fortunately for Arsenal, deflected wide.
Just before the hour, a more traditional Delap fling saw Robert Huth climb highest and nod over. A glorious chance.
The switch in style had put Arsenal back on their heels and it took them time to recover.
But, gradually, recover they did.
Wilshere thumped a long-range shot into the chest of Begovic then Arshavin skipped past the sliding Shawcross on the left-hand byline before cutting the ball back invitingly for Walcott. He tried to finish first-time but miscued.
It would be the last act from the Englishman. With 20 minutes left, he was hauled down by Dean Whitehead on the edge of the area and did not get up. He was stretchered off and Denilson came on.
Despite another change, matters were still tight and even. Shawcross miscued a volley at one end, Bendtner headed over at the other.
As the game entered its final phase, both sides brought on strikers – Marouane Chamakh for Arsenal, Ricardo Fuller for Stoke.
Stoke still pushed forward where possible but theirs was a blunt weapon. The closest they came to breaking the deadlock was when Pennant rippled the sidenetting from a free-kick.
The finale was nervy but controlled. The finesse went from Arsenal and the fight took over.
But in the end they had the three points they wanted.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Squillaci Goal!
- Fabregas 14
- Walcott 70
- Bendtner 80
- Arshavin 14
- Denilson 70
- Chamakh 80
- Wilson 88 Yellow Card
- Walters 77 Yellow Card
- Wilkinson 88
- Fuller 77