By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Substitute Robin van Persie grabbed a late brace as Arsenal continued their revival with a 3-1 win over Stoke at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The Dutchman slotted home cut-backs from Gervinho on 73 and 82 minutes as Arsène Wenger’s side registered their third win inside eight days.
But while the victories over Sunderland and Marseille had been tight affairs, this was more like the old Arsenal. Yes they had to rely on Van Persie’s late introduction after he had been rested at kick-off, but their overall performance was arguably the best of the season so far.
Gervinho had given them the lead just before the half-hour when he cleverly converted from Aaron Ramsey’s scooped pass. However, seven minutes later, Stoke were on level terms when a well-worked free-kick saw Peter Crouch convert from close range.
In previous games this season the equaliser had been prelude for doubts to creep in. Not this afternoon.
Arsenal fought the physical with the physical but retained their grace and guile. They ground down one of the most robust sides in the top flight and fully deserved the three points.
This was a sixth win in seven games for Wenger's men and moved them up to seventh place in the table.
Arsenal are not quite back yet – but they are clearly on the way.
Wenger made four changes from the side that had gleaned that last-gasp victory at Marseille in midweek.
The most eye-catching omission was Van Persie in favour of Marouane Chamakh. However, at his pre-match press conference, the manager had hinted the Dutchman needed a break.
“On Monday I decide always to rest him and on Friday I play him again,” he joked.
Johan Djourou started at right back - the position in which he had ended the game in France after Carl Jenkinson went off with a knee injury.
This was the 100th Premier League game at Emirates Stadium. The first 99 had been a statistician’s dream - W66 D22 L11.
It was also the 150th game in all competitions and two goals this afternoon would bring up a double century in five years at the new ground.
However the opening quarter-hour this afternoon never looked like bringing up that landmark.
Chamakh nudged a header beyond the far post from Mikel Arteta’s corner, then the Spaniard himself drove wide.
Perhaps the closest Arsenal came was when Gervinho raced into the area to collect Ramsey’s pass, but Asmir Begovic scooped up the ball before he could convert.
Maybe it was the European exploits of both clubs, perhaps it was shadow created by the Manchester derby - but this was tame stuff.
The first time the crowd had cause to leave their seats was midway through the half when Arteta’s free-kick fell to Gervinho at the far post. He pushed a pass back into the path of Ramsey, who cracked an effort just wide.
Having said all that, Arsenal had the copyright on creativity up to this point. So, when the goal came in the 27th minute, it had to go to the home side.
Arteta made headway down the left and, after Walcott was dispossessed, Ramsey shovelled a pass over the Stoke defence for Gervinho to collect and then convert.
It was the Ivorian’s second for the Club and had been based on his speed of thought to avoid running offside.
However, within seven minutes, it would be Stoke’s quick thinking that carved out an unlikely equaliser.
Glenn Whelan pumped a seemingly aimless free-kick down the right flank but Shawcross escaped the Arsenal defence to race round the back and nod the ball into the area from the byline. Matthew Upson prodded it on and Jon Walters headed down for Crouch to convert from close range.
It was a soft equaliser and acutely disappointing given the graft required to put the home side in front.
The goal changed the flow of the game and suddenly Stoke began to sustain their attacks on the Arsenal goal. However, they never really looked like grabbing a second.
Just before the whistle, Upson nodded Arteta’s left-wing cross away from Chamakh and then Gervinho fired over.
As the players went down the tunnel it seemed like the first half had been a microcosm of the season so far – decent going forward, punished for mistakes at the back.
Once again Arsenal were making hard work for themselves.
In contrast, Wenger’s men began the second half on the offensive. Walcott and Gervinho both popped up in penetrative positions on the right. Although their crosses were dangerous, both came to nothing.
But it would be a case of ‘possession without penetration’ from then until the midway point of the second half. Wenger’s response was to bring on Van Persie for Chamakh.
The introduction of the captain put the home side into another gear. His first touch was to whip in a cross which was just too tall for Koscielny at the far post.
The rest of the side seemed to be a yard faster just by having the Van Persie on the pitch. Arsenal started to set up camp just outside the Stoke area. The introduction of Arshavin – on for Walcott – only added to the attacking intent of the home side.
Wenger’s men were starting to look irresistible and, in the end, they were.
In the 73rd minute, Gervinho darted to the right-hand byline and cut the ball back for Van Persie at the near post. His stabbed sidefoot shot was fumbled over the line by Begovic – but the scorer celebrated like it was a virtuoso 25-yarder.
Van Persie knows his side are scrapping their way back to form and nothing succeeds like success – however it arrives.
In the wake of the goal, Tony Pulis made immediate attacking changes. They nearly paid dividend when Wojciech Szczesny snatched a Kenwyne Jones nod-down away from Cameron Jerome.
However, Arsenal gave themselves some breathing space eight minutes from time when Gervinho sprinted down the left and cut the ball back for Van Persie to sweep home his second.
It was Dutchman’s 25th goal in 26 Premier League games this calendar year.
Some might argue Arsenal are over-reliant on Robin – and use this afternoon as a prime example.
But the performance without the skipper was enough to instill confidence.
Arsenal are going in only one direction right now – upwards.
- Song (C)
- Chamakh 66
- Walcott 71
- Gervinho 90 Goal!
- Arshavin 71
- Frimpong 90
- Persie 66 Goal! Goal!
- Wilkinson Yellow Card
- Etherington 74
- Whitehead Yellow Card
- Delap 60
- Crouch 74 Goal!
- Diao 60
- Jones 74
- Jerome 74