By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud were on target as Arsenal continued their rise up the table with a dominant win against Stoke City.
The Gunners made an electric start to the match, charging forward with pace and power and leaving the visitors struggling to draw breath.
Alexis Sanchez twice hit the post twice in the early stages, while Walcott missed a good chance after fine work from Hector Bellerin.
Laurent Koscielny and Santi Cazorla both tested Jack Butland in quick succession but, just as frustration was starting to creep in, Walcott raced on to Mesut Ozil’s sublime pass to open the scoring.
Stoke grew into the game after the restart, but Arsenal remained in control.
Ozil and Walcott both spurned decent opportunities, before Giroud - fresh off the bench - fired wide from close range.
Cazorla again went close as the game entered its final knockings, but Giroud made up for his earlier miss when he headed in Cazorla’s free kick five minutes from time.
It was an encouraging way to kick off a big week for Arsene Wenger’s side, who now travel to Zagreb before next weekend’s London derby against Chelsea.
On this evidence, they can look forward to both games with genuine optimism.
SETTING THE SCENE
After the purgatory of the international break, Premier League football made a welcome return to an expectant Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners had gone into the break on the back of a narrow win at Newcastle United, and Wenger kept faith with the majority of that side.
The only change saw Ozil - fit again after minor knee injury - return to the side in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dropped to the bench. That pushed Aaron Ramsey, who had scored three times against Stoke over the course of his career, back out to the right flank.
Elsewhere, with Per Mertesacker back in training but not yet fully recovered from a virus, Gabriel retained his place at the heart of the defence, while Walcott was preferred to Giroud up front.
The visitors had impressed many with their summer business and two of their big-name additions, Xherdan Shaqiri and Mato Joselu, both started here.
But having won all seven of their previous home matches against Stoke in the Premier League, Arsenal were heavy favourites to make it number eight.
Wenger had expressed his confidence in the build-up to this game that the goals would soon start flowing for his side, and they so nearly made good on his word in the opening exchanges.
With just three minutes on the clock, Cazorla picked out Alexis in the six-yard box with a lofted pass. The Chilean rose high, only to see header pushed on to the post by Butland and Walcott slice the rebound wide.
The waves of red pressure continued to build and soon afterwards the dangerous Alexis hit the inside of the post with a low strike, before Walcott headed Bellerin’s pinpoint cross over the bar from close range seconds later.
This was the Arsenal we know and love, full of pace, full of cunning and slicing their opponents’ defence open at will. All that was missing was the goal that would settle any remaining nerves.
Butland was by far the busier keeper, and he was again called into again midway through the half to firstly palm away Koscielny’s fierce drive and then to deny Cazorla moments later.
But finally the dam broke on the half-hour mark, as Ozil released Walcott with a raking 40-yard pass that split the Stoke backline. There was still plenty for the England international to do, but he adroitly took the ball down, held off the covering Marc Muniesa and dinked the ball over Butland to give Arsenal a well-deserved lead.
The relief in the stands was palpable - and the hosts continued to press for the second goal that would reflect their dominance. They would have to wait until after the interval, but their first-half display had given them plenty of reason for cheer.
Arsenal continued in much the same vein after the restart, camped out in their opponents’ half for long periods with Ramsey and then Walcott spurning opportunities to extend their lead.
But Stoke were determined to offer more in attack, and Petr Cech - pretty much a spectator up to this point - was forced into a smart stop to deny Shaqiri, who again went close soon afterwards.
The visitors were growing in confidence as they sought a way back into the match, and the Gunners had to be careful not to leave too many men forward with the match so delicately poised.
Still it was the hosts who posed the greater threat, and Ozil and then Walcott both came close to adding to the scoreline as we entered the final third of a one-sided - if hard-fought - affair.
Giroud was introduced off the bench with 15 minutes remaining and was immediately presented with a golden chance to wrap up the three points but dragged his shot wide from eight yards out.
It made for a tense finale, and the anxiety among the home fans only increased when Cazorla skipped into the area but fired inches wide of the near post.
But finally the knockout punch came with five minutes remaining, when Cazorla whipped in a free kick from the left Giroud rose highest to head in at the near post.
Job done. Croatia is calling next, before that mouth-watering showdown with Chelsea.
Referee: Jonathan Moss
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