Pre-Match Report

Stoke City v Arsenal - Match Preview

By Richard Clarke

Every summer, as soon as the footballing fixture list is announced, millions of index fingers feverishly scroll down the calendar in search of the "big tests". The games that will decide the season.

These days, those digits will stop on the names of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham, allowing a mental log to be formed. Home or away, these teams are tough and, more often than not, winning this mini-league means winning the title.

But you could argue that Sunday's game deserves to be next on the list for consideration.

Arsenal have struggled at Stoke in the Premier League era. In fact, they have registered just one league win in Staffordshire since the 1981/82 campaign.

Stoke's record in north London is equally poor. Their last win at Arsenal in any competition came that same season. So, it seems the problem is particular to the Britannia Stadium.

But then prising away a point or three on Sunday is almost a side issue. At this stage of the season, the message it sent out would be far more important.

Last weekend, we hope we saw a new Arsenal team gelling before our eyes as they tried to breach Sunderland's stoic defences. They did not manage it but Santi Cazorla was enthralling, Lukas Podolski urgent and the rest of the side resilient in their pursuit of the win.

Arsenal were dominant and determined throughout. The opening weekend of the season was hard work for all the title contenders and, of course, a win would have been welcome. But the performance was decent and these things take time.

However if Wenger's men are battle-hardened enough to win at Stoke in only their second outing then it says much about their innate guts and character.

This is a fixture for which you simply have to roll up your sleeves.

It takes all sorts of performances to win a title but success at Stoke will be based on a cast-iron will. And in the depths of an English season, sometimes you are left with little else on which to rely.

"At Stoke it is a question of being strong enough to dictate your style," said Wenger at Friday's press conference.

"If we manage to do that, I'll enjoy it, if we do not manage to do that, I won't enjoy it at all because then we will really suffer.

"You know you need some different qualities when you go to Stoke. Traditionally you need to be good in the air, of course.

"They changed their style a bit last year when, because of being in Europe, they played more on the ground. But we will just concentrate on playing our game. We dealt quite well with the problems they gave us in the last game when we got a 1-1 draw and I felt we dominated.

"But Stoke are always difficult. Similar to Sunderland, they are a team who have experience of the Premier League who know how to make life hard for you. They have a specific style that is always difficult to face. They defend very well, and their football is based on efficiency and that always demands a great concentration level."

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returns to the squad after an ankle injury but Laurent Koscielny's calf problem will keep him out for one more game. There is a minor doubt over Wojciech Szczesny (rib) but Lukasz Fabianski returns after missing the Sunderland game with a back complaint.

That 1-1 draw on April 28 was only five Premier League games ago, albeit straddling a summer, and Stoke have changed little over the close season. Tom Huddlestone was rumoured to be arriving on loan from Tottenham this week and Michael Kightly marked his first game since signing from Wolves with the opening goal in the 1-1 draw at Reading last week.

In Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal certainly have the requisite height and aggression to cope with the expected aerial barrage. But it will also be a test for the Belgian's nascent captaincy. Not that Wenger expects Vermaelen to shoulder the responsibility alone.

"Basically I just want Thomas to express his normal qualities, that means to be a fighter and to keep the team together," said the manager. "And for me he is a natural fighter anyway.

"Maybe he'll need to communicate a bit more because he is naturally a quiet boy.

"On that front maybe he will have to come out a bit more. But he is not the only [captain] we have. There is Mertesacker, Cazorla and, of course, Arteta, who is a little general on the pitch."

In April, Arsenal went to Stoke without their Spanish sergeant-major and he was sorely missed. The newly-appointed vice-captain was signed exactly a year ago and, in that time, has become hugely influential.

You sense Arteta's type of strength - mentally and technically - is perhaps the best defence Arsenal possess against Stoke's contrasting style. You could argue that, among others, the likes of Cazorla, Podolski, Vermaelen and Mertesacker have a similar sort of quiet steel about them.

"Of course I know this game will tell something me about my team," Wenger concluded. "But we have a very good focus and a very good spirit in the side."

His side will need it all for one of their toughest tests of the campaign.


Team news:

Arsenal: Koscielny (calf), Rosicky (tendon), Sagna (leg), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)

Stoke: Pennant (thigh), Whitehead (suspended)


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