By Richard Clarke
Arsenal prised a valuable point away from Stoke on Saturday thanks to Robin van Persie's 28th Premier League goal of the season.
The Dutchman touched home an excellent cross from Tomas Rosicky in the 15th minute to equalise an early strike from Peter Crouch.
The draw was the least Arsenal deserved. They created a flurry of chances in the first half and, though the latter period was more even, the visitors might have taken all three points if referee Chris Foy had awarded a penalty when Yossi Benayoun appeared to be bundled over in the area with 16 minutes left.
A superb clearance from Bacary Sagna in injury time preserved Arsenal's point. Newcastle's defeat at Wigan means Arsène Wenger's side are now four clear in third place having played a game more than the North-East side.
Arsenal are inching their way into the Champions League. But the means does not matter - it never does at this stage of the season - as long as they get the job done in the end.
Slowly but surely Arsenal are securing third place.
Wenger made two changes from the side held to a draw by Chelsea last Saturday.
Stoke came into this game in 14th; lower than one would expect. However the Britannia Stadium was their stronghold once more. Liverpool and Tottenham had been beaten here while Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs had only taken away a point.
Since Stoke had returned to the top flight, Arsenal had been beaten twice in the Premier League and once in the FA Cup. Their only victory had been blighted by a nasty injury to Aaron Ramsey.
This game had stood out like a sore-thumb in Arsenal's run-in. Taking one point in their last two games had left Wenger's men with a narrower margin for error.
This afternoon, they would need to draw on all of the calm, professionalism that had hauled them up the table in February and March.
And that is exactly how they started.
In the sixth minute, Benayoun charged the ball down and fed Van Persie. He returned the ball to the Israeli, whose goalbound shot was easily saved.
Then Rosicky clipped a ball to far post and Van Persie's header was snaffled around the post by Asmir Begovic.
It seemed that Arsenal had slipped easily into gear. However their poor record at the Britannia Stadium is founded on conceding early goals and they would let in another one this afternoon.
In the ninth minute, Stoke worked the ball to the left and Matthew Etherington's high, hanging cross was guide home by the head of Crouch.
It was a sucker-punch but Arsenal were not in the mood to rest of their laurels this afternoon. They just rolled up their sleeves and redoubled their efforts.
Within six minutes they were level.
Benayoun won the ball and fed Rosicky on the left. The Czech international dinked a cross to the far post where Van Persie ghosted in to prod home.
It was the major moment of the first half as Arsenal kicked on and took control. They created a host of decent chances after that and should have netted at least one.
Sagna's raking cross might have been nodded home by Gervinho, Van Persie's shot was blocked, Koscielny headed over and Gervinho burst through only to blaze wide.
Stoke were blunted and reliant on set-pieces to threaten the Arsenal goal. They did manufacture their fair share of nervousness in the area but the visitors stayed strong.
Wenger's men went into the break level in terms of the scoreline but on top in the game.
They continued in that vein after the restart. Song and Rosicky set up Sagna on the right and, though Van Persie made clean connection with is header, it did not have enough power to beat Begovic.
Stoke had mustered some response after the restart but Arsenal were still edging the game. Gervinho and Vermaelen thumped over while Kieran Gibbs had a glimpse of goal but his shot was blocked.
However the home side were now pressing with more force and asking more pertinent questions of the Arsenal defence.
The visitors would respond. Van Persie's free-kick was blocked and Ramsey drove wide.
In the 74th minute they had strong claims for a penalty when Glenn Whelan appeared to be bundle over Benayoun as the Israeli raced onto Van Persie's ball.
If Arsenal failed to win, it would be seen as a key moment.
Cameron Jerome stung the hands of Wojciech Szczesny with a fierce snap-shot eight minutes from time. But Arsenal ended strongly and Vermaelen's low piledriver whistled inches past the post in the dying seconds.
It would have been a travesty had Stoke snatched something at the death. But they nearly did.
A late throw-in from Rory Delap caused consternation in the area and Sagna had to hack the ball away from under his own bar. Jon Walters then fired just wide.
However Arsenal can be satisfied with their work and their point.
Another tough obstacle had been overcome.
- Benayoun 83 Yellow Card
- Ramsey 73
- Song Yellow Card
- van Persie (C) Goal!
- Gervinho 78
- Andre Santos 83
- Diaby 73
- Chamakh 78
- Shotton 56
- Shawcross (C)
- Whitehead Yellow Card
- Pennant 77
- Etherington 84
- Crouch Goal!
- Upson 56
- Delap 84
- Jerome 77