By Chris Harris at the Britannia Stadium
Arsenal’s title hopes have finally been extinguished.
Arsene Wenger’s side were not completely out of the running when they arrived at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday but Stoke inflicted their seventh defeat of the season - and there’s no way back from that.
Kenwyne Jones got the first – although he knew little about it – after poor defending from a free kick and former Gunner Jermaine Pennant delivered the killer blow with a deflected shot over Wojciech Szczesny.
Robin van Persie spurned two good chances before giving the visitors a glimmer of hope with a fine strike 10 minutes from time. But Jon Walters responded within seconds to snuff out any chance of a comeback.
Arsenal could have few complaints. They were off-colour for most of this contest and once again made life tough for themselves with a handful of basic errors.
The target now is to secure third place and the automatic Champions League spot it brings. Manchester City are five points adrift with a game in hand, so Arsene Wenger’s side still have work to do before their summer holidays.
The Frenchman waited on the outcome of two late fitness tests before finalising his line-up for this trip to Staffordshire. Johan Djourou passed his but Gael Clichy failed his so Kieran Gibbs stepped in at left back. Thomas Vermaelen, the likely replacement for Djourou, had to settle for a place on the bench as he returned to the squad for the first time since August.
With Cesc Fabregas (thigh), Samir Nasri (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (calf) all sidelined, Andrey Arshavin came into the starting XI while Aaron Ramsey continued in midfield after his match-winning contribution against Manchester United last weekend.
Predictably, much of the pre-match hype centred around the Welshman’s reunion with Ryan Shawcross 15 months after the Stoke captain broke his leg. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Ramsey was jeered by the home fans. Wenger had predicted before the match that a return to the scene of his “car accident” would aid Ramsey’s mental rehabilitation. He certainly played as if his mind had been cleansed.
It was Ramsey’s fellow midfielder, Jack Wilshere, who took the fight to Stoke in the opening stages. His persistence set up a half-chance for Arshavin inside 90 seconds but the Russian skewed his shot wide of the near post. After six minutes Ramsey prodded the ball through to Van Persie but the Dutchman took time to adjust his feet and could only stab wastefully over the bar.
Arsenal’s brisk, breezy start augured well but it soon petered out in even breezier conditions that made life difficult for both sides. Frustratingly, the visitors regularly found themselves on the edge of the Stoke box but lacked the invention and sharpness to create chances.
You could have forgiven Stoke for having one eye on next Saturday’s FA Cup Final - they have already lost Matthew Etherington to injury – but the hosts soon awoke from their slumber.
Pennant was the catalyst. The former Arsenal winger hooked one effort wide while Szczesny was caught out of position and then delivered the free kick from which Jones gave Stoke the lead in the 27th minute.
It was a poor goal from Arsenal’s perspective. Arshavin conceded a soft free kick for a push, the cross was not cleared at the near post and Jones, whose run had not been tracked, saw the ball bounce off his chest and into the net. Before this game 56 per cent of the goals conceded by Arsenal this season had come from set-pieces – that statistic has crept up again.
Six minutes before the break it got worse. This time Pennant got away from Bacary Sagna and advanced as Arsenal’s centre backs backed off. Eventually Djourou came out to challenge but he only succeeded in deflecting Pennant’s fierce shot over Szczesny. Walters hit the crossbar from an acute angle moments later after a slip from Song and half-time probably came at a good time for the visitors. When they emerged from the interval they had two new strikers on the pitch – Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh.
Both had a sight of goal early in the second half, Chamakh scuffing wide from a decent position and Bendtner curling an effort just off target. Nonetheless, Arsenal looked far more lively.
But Stoke weren’t done. It needed a great block from Sagna to deny Rory Delap while Szczesny saved brilliantly from Glenn Whelan after he burst through on goal.
When Van Persie stepped on the ball and fell over it seemed to sum up Arsenal’s day and the Dutchman’s woes continued when he was denied by Asmir Begovic’s point-blank save after Bendtner had played him through.
Van Persie did get the goal he deserved with 10 minutes left – taking him to 20 for the season – with a vicious right-foot shot from the edge of the box. But that glimmer of hope faded within 60 seconds after a poor clearance from Djourou was collected by Walters and smashed past Szczesny.
It was the final word on a forgettable day for Arsenal.
Referee: Mark Halsey
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