By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are out of the FA Cup.
Arsène Wenger's side went down 3-1 in a thunderous Fourth Round tie at Stoke on Sunday.
Both managers were true to their pre-match promises. Arsenal were a mixture of experience and youth while the home side were at full-strength.
Stoke took the lead within 70 seconds when Ricardo Fuller nodded home a trademark Rory Delap throw-in. By half time Arsenal had recovered from the shock and, just before the whistle, equalised through Denilson.
But Stoke were the stronger side in the second half and so it was no surprise to see Wenger make a triple substitution midway through the half. Such boldness had won the Third Round tie at West Ham earlier this month.
Today, however, it did not work. Mamady Sidibe set up Fuller for his second in the 78th minute then, just before the end, Dean Whitehead's goal killed off any comeback.
Wenger's team-sheet, especially the bench, had suggested the Frenchman was not prepared to throw away this competition, therefore defeat is a blow.
However, all along, the manager admitted his priorities lay elsewhere.
If Arsenal win the Premier League or Champions League this season then today's defeat will have been worth conceding.
It was not a case of ‘if' Wenger would throw in youngsters this afternoon. It was a case of how many.
There were debuts of varying kinds. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas made his first start of any sort after warming the bench for a number of times in recent games. Francis Coquelin began a game outside the Carling Cup for the first time while this was Sol Campbell's second debut after re-joining the club earlier in the month. Of course the centre back was actually making his 198th appearance for the Club. His last had been at the 2006 Champions League Final.
Armand Traore, Lukasz Fabianski, Mikael Silvestre and Carlos Vela all needed a run. The surprise was the retention of Cesc Fabregas and Denilson in central midfield.
Meanwhile subsitutes Andrey Arshavin, Eduardo, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey seemed to represent a sizeable insurance policy.
Stoke were a full strength, literally. Tony Pulis had said he would put out a Premier League team. Arsenal knew what was coming.
The same could be said of the opening goal.
With little over 30 seconds on the clock the home side won a throw in. It was exactly the same position from which the scored in the opening minutes during last season's League game.
As ever Delap's throw was long, powerful and flat. Fuller stole in front of the onrushing Fabianski to send a diving header into the top corner of the net. Exactly 70 seconds had elapsed.
Young, away from home and losing, understandably Arsenal went into their shell for a time.
Stoke, however, looked to kick on. They continued to pepper the Arsenal goal with crosses and throw-ins. Only Campbell's toe-poke prevented Fuller's cut-back finding Sidibe in the middle of the area.
Gradually the visitors did find their feet but chances were scarce.
Theo Walcott set up Vela to shot but Danny Higginbotham nipped in then Denilson had an effort blocked from long-range.
However no team wrestles control from Stoke without a fight. In the 35th minute, Fuller burst past Silvestre in the area and the Arsenal defender appeared to clip him. Replays suggested the Frenchman had been fortunate. It would be a crucial moment.
Four minutes before the break, Glenn Whelan fouled Vela on the left just outside the area. Fabregas shaped to swing the free-kick to the gaggle of players at the far post. Instead he squared to Denilson on the edge of the area. The Brazilian's low drive was deflected but it found a way through a crowded area and into the corner of the net. It was his fourth goal of the season.
Arsenal now had the impetus. They forced a flurry of corners late in the half but, despite the pressure, Thomas Sorensen was untroubled.
Level pegging was just about fair at the break.
However the opening minutes of the second half belonged to Stoke. Campbell slid in expertly to cut out Danny Collins' cross. Then Fabianski brilliantly blocked Fuller's close-range header from Whelan's corner.
Sorensen tipped over from Fabregas' 25-yard drive but it was an oasis in a desert of Stoke pressure. Fuller thumped an effort over the bar as the home side tried to muscle another goal.
It was developing into a good, old-fashioned FA Cup tie. Fittingly it even began raining.
Stoke had the edge but Arsenal were still having their moments. Emmanuel-Thomas nodded Vela through on the left of the area but the Mexican could only hook a shot across the face of goal.
But, straight after that, Sidibe slid a cross toward Matthew Etherington at the far post only for Frances Coquelin to divert the ball out for a corner.
Wenger clearly realised his side were started to lose their way so, midway through the half, he made three changes - Arshavin, Ramsey and Eduardo came on for Walcott, Emmanuel-Thomas and Coquelin.
With 18 minutes left Stoke might have regained the lead but Delap's chest down was heavy and Silvestre slid in to intercept. The Frenchman got caught for his trouble and needed lengthy treatment.
As they had at West Ham in the Third Round, you sensed the substitutions would change the game. They helped set up Vela but the Mexican was dispossessed six yards out. However replays suggested the ball hit the hand of Danny Collins in the aftermath.
It seemed that Arsenal were about start taking over.
In fact Stoke would take the lead and then kill the game.
With 12 minutes left, Sidibe stormed down the right and clipped a delicate cross into the middle of the area. It drifted between Campbell and Eastmond for Fuller to guide home his second of the game.
Ramsey thumped over when well-placed but, with four minutes left, Stoke grabbed a third. Eastmond was caught in possession and Etherington fed Dean Whitehead a simple tap-in.
Substitute Tuncay netted a fourth at the death but it was flagged offside.
Shortly after that the whistle blew. Arsenal were out.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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