A late free-kick by Lukas Podolski secured a vital victory for Arsenal against Stoke City on Saturday.

Arsène Wenger’s side had been denied by their deep-defending visitors all afternoon before the German struck with 12 minutes left.

There was a whiff of controversy about the goal as Theo Walcott was offside when the kick was taken and, after the ball flicked off Geoff Cameron’s boot and flew in, the assistant referee raised his flag.

However referee Chris Foy overruled, quite understandably, as the England international was not interfering with play.

With Chelsea and Everton both dropping points, the goal secured a crucial victory.

Arsenal had struggled to break down Stoke all afternoon and, when they had managed to penetrate, keeper Asmir Begovic was always there to save.

The winner might have had a whiff of fortune but the win itself was utterly deserved

The winner might have had a whiff of fortune but the win itself was utterly deserved as Arsenal took the game to their opponents throughout.

The victory takes Wenger’s men just one point behind Tottenham who visit West Brom on Sunday.

This dour game will not live long in the memory but the three points could prove vital in May.

Between Wednesday’s draw against Liverpool and this game, Wenger had signed left back Nacho Monreal. With Kieran Gibbs out for an estimated four to six weeks, the Spaniard started.

There were five changes in all and some were surprises. Santi Cazorla, Podolski and Aaron Ramsey dropped to the bench while Thomas Vermaelen was injured.

Abou Diaby, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mikel Arteta and Laurent Koscielny came in.

Stoke had been teak-tough opponents for Wenger’s men at the Britannia Stadium but they had lost all their Premier League fixtures on this ground.

The opening stages suggested more of the same.

Arsenal picked up where they had left off against Liverpool in midweek. Given that, at the pre-match press conference, Wenger had been concerned about his side’s first-half performances it was a welcome change.

Let’s not overstate it, Arsenal were the superior side in terms of territory and possession but chances were rare at both ends. Stoke’s determination to defend in numbers saw to that.

Jack Wilshere went high with a wild shot, Olivier Giroud’s header flew wide at the near post and Oxlade-Chamberlain was speculative from distance. But Begovic was barely troubled.

Let’s not overstate it, Arsenal were the superior side in terms of territory and possession but chances were rare at both ends

At the other end, Peter Crouch had a shot blocked and Jon Walters’ long-range drive was comfortably saved by Wojciech Szczesny.

The pace of Theo Walcott was Arsenal’s best outlet and he forced the 31st minute corner that saw Arsenal nearly take the lead.

Wilshere’s delivery somehow penetrated a mass of players in the six-yard box to find Oxlade-Chamberlain at the far post. He controlled the ball with one touch and got off his shot with another. A desperate Begovic blocked with his body.

The chance acted as an inspiration for Arsenal. A couple of corners later, Koscielny met Walcott’s cross with a firm downward header. Again Begovic pulled off the save.

Five minutes from break, Wilshere caressed a pass into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left. The England international tried to guide the ball into the far corner. Begovic blocked once more.

It had been a solid, if scoreless, first half for Arsenal with the visiting keeper the main sticking point for the home side.

The trend was the same after the restart with Arsenal peppering the Stoke goal.

Their best early chance came in the 55th minute when Monreal exchanged passes with Wilshere and the Spaniard’s chipped cross just failed to reach Giroud.

Seconds later the Englishman supplied the French striker at the near post. This time his rising drive flew over.

We were starting to see the first real attacking instincts from Monreal. But, at the same time, Stoke were looking a little too comfortable so Wenger made changes - Podolski and Cazorla for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Diaby.

As a result, the urgency was cranked up a notch but Arsenal still struggled to test Begovic with any regularity.

In fact the goal came in the midst of a lull. Andy Wilkinson had struggled with Walcott all afternoon and clipped him on the edge of the area.

Podolski’s free-kick flew in off the foot of Cameron and the Arsenal players wheeled away in celebration before seeing that flag.

The referee’s decision was met with relief and much as elation.

Pulis threw on three strikers in response to the goal. They had little effect. The game found an edge in the final stages but Arsenal deservedly held on.

This was a tough afternoon but a very satisfying victory.

Arsenal

1
Szczesny
3
Sagna
18
Monreal
4
Mertesacker
6
Koscielny
8
Arteta
14
Walcott 90
10
Wilshere
24
Diaby 68
15
Oxlade-Chamberlain 68
12
Giroud

Substitutes

25
Mannone
11
Santos
25
Jenkinson
7
Rosicky
16
Ramsey 90
19
Cazorla 68
9
Podolski 68 Goal!

Stoke City

1
Begovic
28
Wilkinson Yellow Card
17
Shawcross Yellow Card
4
Huth
20
Cameron 84
30
Shotton
15
Nzonzi
6
Whelan Yellow Card
26
Etherington
25
Crouch 84
19
Walters 84

Substitutes

29
Sorensen
18
Whitehead
19
Kightly
16
Adam
9
Jones 84
10
Owen 84
30
Jerome 84
Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source Richard Clarke 4 Feb 2013