Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Arsenal v Stoke - Preview

By Richard Clarke

The fightback starts here.

Arsène Wenger has charged his side with demonstrating their strength – both physical and mental - against Stoke on Saturday.

Arsenal were accused of weakness last weekend when they were humbled 3-0 by Premier League leaders Chelsea at Emirates Stadium. It is an analysis with which the manager vehemently disagrees.

Saturday gives him another opportunity to test theory. While Stoke have evolved into a highly competent top-flight outfit, they retain the physicality that won them promotion two seasons ago.

Having fallen 11 points behind the Stamford Bridge side, Arsenal simply have to make their 100th competitive match at Emirates Stadium a reason to celebrate.

“We are disheartened after recent defeats,” admitted Wenger at his pre-match press conference. “We are not light-hearted at the moment, I don’t deny that.

“But I believe it is a good way to see how strong we can react. Of course I believe the players are disappointed but highly motivated and determined to get back on track in a convincing way.

“I believe we have been disturbed a lot by the international break. We didn’t look at all like we were suffering before and we had a period when, in fairness, we were doing well.

“But we had then ‘bang, bang’ and we've had no time to respond because we have so many players out in the same area. Now I believe that it's important we don’t do more damage and that we respond quickly.”

Not that Arsenal’s injuries have gone away of course.

Bacary Sagna is available after collecting an ankle problem against Chelsea. But Robin van Persie (ankle), Kieran Gibbs (foot), Nicklas Bendtner (groin), Gael Clichy (back), Abou Diaby (calf) and Johan Djourou (knee) are missing. In addition Alex Song is suspended after picking up his fifth booking of the season in the midweek 3-0 Carling Cup defeat at Manchester City.

Arsenal have lost just six of their previous 99 games at Emirates Stadium and on only one occasion have been defeated when leading.

Sticking with stats, for the record this will be Wenger’s 500th Premier League game and, assuming he plays, the 250th club appearance for Cesc Fabregas.

The best indication of Stoke’s success last season is that no-one is at all surprised they are in top ten with a third of this term already gone. They have lost just once in their last seven League games however it must be said that their strength is at the Britannia Stadium. Their only win in their last eight road trips came, somewhat fortunately, at Tottenham last month.

However they are still the type of strong-arm side you would like to avoid when you have lost your last three domestic games without scoring and are under scrutiny from the outside. Seven days before Friday’s press conference, Wenger had sat in the same seat and said “this is our time” before going down to Chelsea. Those four words were recalled at Friday’s press conference.

“You have to take the right distance and analyse the game in the right way,” said Wenger by way of response. “Football’s alignment always brings you completely up or completely down. But life is in between.

“If I sit down with you now and watch the Chelsea game again, you would be surprised. But we have to live with those definite conclusions about us and come back strong and determined to show we are right in what we believe.

“It’s time for a solidarity mentality. There is a danger that doubts creep into the players’ minds but that’s what we have to deal with – to rebuild the belief and the confidence, and show that at any price we won’t give up.

“We have a game in hand. In the short term it is more important to win our next game than anything else and I believe that Chelsea and Manchester United can drop points. Everywhere people can drop points.

“You can see that this week the players have practised well and they are focussed,” concluded Wenger. “But the real response is against Stoke.”

Whatever has been said or written since the Chelsea game, it was always going to be.

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