Pre-Match Report

Stoke City v Arsenal - Match Preview

By Richard Clarke

"Yes I believe we deserve to be third, considering what we have gone through," said Arsène Wenger ahead of the trip to Stoke on Saturday. "We haven't stolen the points from anybody. We have 65 overall right now and if we manage to play well in our last three games I think we'll get there and deserve to be there."

You sense the game at the Britannia Stadium will heavily influence whether Arsenal cruise to their target, limp over the line or, whisper it quietly, fail to achieve the "just desserts" of Wenger's estimations.

It should not come to that but, at the same time, this is now a 270-minute season for Arsenal, and, having hauled themselves back where they belong, the manager will be loathed to allow a late slip to undermine his campaign.

A few months ago the Frenchman was being told fourth may be the limit of his side's ambition because of their 'tough run-in'. Manchester City and Chelsea at home plus Stoke away seemed tougher than almost anything third-place Tottenham would have to face.

Well Arsenal have taken a perfectly satisfactory four points from those two eye-catching games at Emirates without conceding a goal. Meanwhile their neighbours have struggled. Right now, Newcastle have more momentum than Harry Redknapp's side and are just three points adrift in fourth with a game in hand.

Following a run of seven straight wins, Arsenal have had their blips but the point gleaned from a miserly Chelsea last weekend looks better in the light of their Champions League Semi-Final victory over Barcelona - even if the presence of the Stamford Bridge side in the Final accentuates the needs to finish third.

A certain quiet composure has allowed Wenger's men to overcome so much this season. Stoke on Saturday might be the final fence in their own Grand National. If they can land the other side with their lead intact, they can get their head down and go for the line without much left in their way.

"Two months ago, we would have signed up to be where we are," said Wenger. "And if you think just one week back, you'd say yes for sure.

"I am confident about Saturday and I believe this is a good mental test for us.

"In the past we have not done so well at Stoke, so now is a good time to start to change it.

"We have been tested this season so we are confident that we have the mental strength required. We have been in worse situations than we are in now, so it is a good opportunity to show it."

Wenger's squad will be similar to that one held by Chelsea last weekend, except Yossi Benayoun returns after being ineligible against his mother club.

Tomas Rosicky has recovered from the sickness that forced him off early in that game but Abou Diaby seems to have caught the same bug and will make the bench at best.

The Britannia Stadium has been billed as a bogey ground for Arsenal since the Staffordshire side returned to top flight four seasons ago. Certainly, each visit has been costly - two League defeats, one FA Cup exit and the only away win saw Aaron Ramsey break his leg.

"Stoke are a good side," said Wenger. "They get you in a game for which you have to prepare mentally. We have conceded goals from long throws or from corners in the past - and they have one of the best defences in the League. It is difficult to score goals against them.

"Their campaign in the Premier League has been less spectacular because they gave a lot in the Europa League and in the FA Cup.

"Overall they did very well in the Europe, they had big teams to play and what was really surprising is how well they coped with that. They went out against Valencia, who went to the Semi-Final, and they were close to making it through."

Wenger was asked if he was "ready to win ugly" on Saturday.

"We are ready to win," he replied sternly. "It depends what you call [ugly] of course because we will be faithful to the way we play football. That is for sure.

"We will not compete with Stoke playing an unusual game, we can only win if we play our game. We will be faithful to trying to play football well.

"We have to combat them in the air because with Peter Crouch up front. He is technically good, he can bring other people in. But as well we cannot forget to put the ball down and play our game."

That is, of course, the Arsenal way. And, despite taking one point from their last two games, Wenger is convinced his side have enough left to secure third.

"I felt against Wigan we were unbalanced with Arteta moving out and we ended up losing two goals when we had ten men," he said. "After that, honestly I thought Wigan defended very well.

"Against Chelsea, we should have won the game. We watched it again. We had the chances. But it can happen - it was a 0-0 which was no worse than Barcelona achieved against Chelsea so overall I think it's not too bad."

The same can be said of Arsenal's season if they can take the third place that Wenger feels his side already deserves.

Team news

Stoke: Pennant (doubt - virus), Wilkinson (hamstring), Diao (knee), Sidibe (knee)

Arsenal: Walcott (hamstring), Arteta (ankle), Mertesacker (ankle), Wilshere (ankle) Frimpong (knee)

Random Facts

Stoke last kept a clean-sheet against Arsenal on March 30, 1985.

This season, Stoke have taken just one point in games when they have conceded more than one goal.

On average this season, Stoke have picked up more points than Arsenal in games when they have scored first.

Stoke have taken six points from their last seven Premier League games

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