Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Stoke v Arsenal - Preview

By Richard Clarke

"The real question,” said Arsène Wenger breaking into an incongruent smile, “is do you deduct the time it takes to clean the ball with the towel?

“Actually for me that is a good advertising possibility for a cleaning company you know.”

While the Stoke City marketing department might welcome the tip, it is defensive awareness not brand awareness that matters this weekend.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Rory Delap’s long-range throw-ins have once again commanded all the attention ahead of Arsenal’s trip to the Britannia Stadium on Saturday.

The Irishman’s opening Howitzer has caught out Arsenal in each of their recent trips. In November 2008, Manuel Almunia was criticised for failing to come for his 11th-minute effort. In January, Lukasz Fabianski was criticised for coming for, and not reaching, a second minute throw-in.

Each time Ricardo Fuller profited. Each time Arsenal have gone on to lose.

However on Wednesday, Shay Given, often touted as the best keeper in the Premier League, made an identical error to the Pole. The long and short of it is every defence is troubled by the ploy. It is now so entrenched in the Stoke armoury that towels are left on the sidelines for the Irishman to dry his hands pre-throw. Before beating Almunia 14 months ago, he had been forced to use his shirt.   While Saturday's opponents have progressed in many more ways than that, one Irishman's hurling seems to make it a different sport at times.

“His throws are dangerous because they are horizontal,” said Wenger. “So if anybody deflects the ball, you have no time to get it back.

“The ball comes like an arrow. It doesn’t come like a usual kick of the ball. It comes flat. You cannot really get in front of the striker but if one of them touches the ball it’s difficult to defend.

“However Stoke are good on set-pieces generally so I wouldn’t instruct my players to kick it out for a corner rather than a throw-in. We do not go for that. The problem is, with Delap, it is a corner already.”

And Stoke are profiting. Apart from Aston Villa, they are the only Premier League side still unbeaten in 2010. If they avoid defeat on Saturday, they will establish their longest top-flight run without defeat for 36 years.

Despite the acrimony surrounding that defeat last season, the Arsenal manager was fulsome in his praise of not only their success but the manner in which it had been achieved.

“What people forget about Stoke is they are very well-organised,” said Wenger. “They defend very well, in a very intelligent way. They just do not give many chances away, that’s one of their main efficiencies.

“Also I watched them against on Wednesday and they play football. Yes they are strong at set-pieces but you cannot reduce them to that. I think compared to the last campaign they’ve developed a lot.”

And, tellingly, they have not suffered from second season syndrome - an affliction common to many sides 18 months after promotion.

“I believe they have bought in an intelligent way,” replied Wenger when asked about the reasons for their immunity. “Also I believe they have improved their technical level without losing their spirit and their organisation.

“Sometimes, when you want to go forward, you lose the qualities you had. But they have not lost those and they have added some more technical ability too.”

Apart from the possible inclusion of Eduardo, who faces a late test on his hamstring, Arsenal travel with the same squad that squeezed past Sunderland seven days ago.

Andrey Arshavin (hamstring), Abou Diaby (knee) and William Gallas (calf) are still out. Therefore Wenger’s main decision is between Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre for the centre back slot alongside Thomas Vermaelen. Both had their problems when a weakened Arsenal side went of the FA Cup on the same ground a month ago.

Arsenal’s exit that day, plus by a couple of key defeats, have all served to blacken the outward opinion of the team right now. However Wenger’s team are still undeniably in the title race. Last Saturday, both Chelsea and Manchester United had tricky games and Wenger’s men took their chance to steal ground on the latter. Another opportunity arises this weekend. A battle weary Chelsea entertain an, admitted equally tired but still highly capable, Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile Manchester United are playing in the Carling Cup Final. If they win their next two games, Wenger’s side will be second and three points off the lead when the final whistle blows against Burnley next Saturday.

Arsenal’s run-in is said to be the easiest of the top three. But then Stoke just don’t do easy. Along with that little trip to White Hart Lane, this is the stand-out stinker of the final 11 fixtures.

That said, Chelsea and Manchester United have both taken away maximum points from the Britannia Stadium this season. If Arsenal can do likewise, it will inject pure, unadulterated belief directly their veins.

“For us, we know that, no matter how Stoke plays, our solution on the day is to be efficient and to win the game,” said Wenger.

“All the players are highly focused on this game because they know it’s a tricky one. But we know as well that, for us to have a chance to compete at the top - there is no choice.”

Stoke on Saturday is simply huge.

See Full List

Fixtures & Results

Friendly Match
Ticket Info