By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Alexis Sanchez scored twice as Arsenal hit top form to blow Stoke City away with an exceptional performance at Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners made an electric start to the game, and went close through Alexis and Tomas Rosicky within minutes of the first whistle.
They were rewarded for their endeavour in the sixth minute as they grabbed a lead they never looked likely to lose when Laurent Koscielny headed in from close range.
In a blur of pass-and-move, the hosts dominated the first half and extended their advantage just after the half-hour mark.
It was a goal that will live long in the memory as Alexis combined superbly with Rosicky, before cutting into the area, beating two men and firing in at the near post.
Having scored goal 17 of a stellar season before half time, the Chilean added number 18 straight after the interval as he curled home a low free kick from the edge of the area.
Arsene Wenger’s side continued to pour forward almost at will, with Santi Cazorla hitting the bar after magnificent interplay with Oxlade-Chamberlain.
There was further good news with the return of Mesut Ozil in the 72nd minute for his first appearance since October 5, while Theo Walcott continued his rehabilitation off the bench and went close near the end.
Mathieu Debuchy’s shoulder injury was the only negative of an overwhelmingly positive day, with the Gunners moving into fifth place with a swaggering display that should fuel optimism for the season ahead.
SETTING THE SCENE
The big news prior to kick off at a chilly Emirates Stadium was the retention of David Ospina in goal at the expense of Wojciech Szczesny.
Having fended off questions in Friday’s pre-match press conference about the latter, Arsene Wenger insisted before the game that Ospina’s inclusion was based purely on merit. It was the Colombian international’s first Premier League start, while the manager made four changes to the side that so comfortably beat Hull City seven days earlier.
In defence, Debuchy replaced the sick Calum Chambers and Koscielny came in for Hector Bellerin, who dropped to the bench. Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was drafted in for Walcott, while Olivier Giroud returned after a three-match suspension to take the place of Joel Campbell.
There was encouraging news with the sight of Ozil on the bench after a three-month absence with a knee injury, while Aaron Ramsey joined him after close to five weeks on the sidelines.
With memories still fresh in the mind of their 3-2 defeat at Stoke last month, the Gunners were intent on making amends this time around - and the omens looked good.
Wenger’s team had won their previous 12 home games against the Potters, while Mark Hughes had never won at Arsenal in seven attempts as an opposition manager. But a game against Stoke is never easy, and they would prove awkward opponents.
Having started so slowly at Britannia Stadium five weeks ago, Arsenal were not about to make the same mistake again and came roaring out of the blocks.
Within two minutes, Alexis collected the ball on the edge of the area and sent a curling effort towards the bottom corner that forced Asmir Begovic into a sprawling save.
The Bosnian international was again called into action moments later to deny Rosicky - but with the clock approaching six minutes, the home side grabbed the lead that their turbo-charged start deserved.
It came after Alexis’ corner hit a Stoke man at the near post, with Koscielny collecting the loose ball and playing it back to the Chilean forward. The centre back then turned and sprinted back into the area, timing his run superbly to meet Alexis’ cross and send a firm header into the bottom corner.
It was the perfect start for the home side - but it was not all good news, with Debuchy stretchered off with a shoulder injury and replaced by Bellerin.
But the Gunners did not let it upset their flow, and soon Oxlade-Chamberlain had gone close with an arrowed drive that flew just wide of the far post.
It was all Arsenal, with only Begovic preventing them from running away with it in the early stages. The Bosnian again produced a fine save in the 19th minute to palm away a fierce Giroud drive, before the striker blazed wide after beating the offside trap moments later.
Just after the half-hour mark, the Gunners doubled their advantage - and there were no prizes for guessing who got it. Alexis has been a sensation this season, and he added another to his growing collection of eye-catching strikes after combining beautifully with Rosicky, before cutting into the Stoke area.
There was still a lot of work to be done with Ryan Shawcross and Philipp Wollscheid in close attendance, but the Chilean managed to tie them up in knots before beating Begovic at his near post, both with his eyes and the firm drive he unleashed. It was goal number 17 of an exceptional campaign - and arguably one of his best to leave the Gunners in total control at the interval.
Having been so dominant in the first half, the Gunners picked up right where they left off after the interval - with an early goal.
After Oxlade-Chamberlain had been hauled down on the edge of the area by former Gunner Steve Sidwell, the hosts were awarded a free kick.
Alexis has been in red-hot form all season and he curled a low shot towards goal that Begovic could only push on to the post - but the Bosnian could not prevent the loose ball from trickling over the line.
It was a vintage Arsenal performance and they came so close to another picture-perfect goal when Oxlade-Chamberlain released Cazorla in the area, who took a touch before chipping over Begovic but on to the bar.
Walcott and Ozil were soon introduced within minutes of each other to a rapturous reception, with the former sent through on goal in the 80th minute but he dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Ozil had half a chance near the end to add a fourth, but fired a right-footed shot over the bar. As the final whistle blew, the Gunners could reflect on a job very well done ahead of next weekend’s game at Manchester City.
On this form, Wenger’s side can look forward to it with quiet confidence.
Referee: Jonathan Moss
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