By Nik Brumsack at Britannia Stadium
Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League after a hard-fought goalless draw at Stoke City.
On an afternoon during which few clear-cut chances were created, Arsène Wenger’s side displayed plenty of togetherness and character against a side who have beaten plenty of the league’s big guns here this season.
When opportunities did arrive, Petr Cech and Jack Butland - probably the Premier League’s most in-form goalkeepers - ensured that this fixture remained goalless.
Butland twice denied Olivier Giroud while Cech made a couple of excellent saves from Joselu after the break to keep the scores level.
Following just four days after Wednesday’s topsy-turvy encounter at Liverpool, this was an altogether more disciplined display by the Gunners.
In truth, a draw was probably a fair result but Wenger may look back with a degree of regret at his side’s inability to play the final pass.
SETTING THE SCENE
Britannia Stadium is a ground that has not been particularly kind to Wenger in recent years.
The Arsenal manager came into this match having won just once on his previous eight trips to the Potteries - and his task here was made tougher by Mesut Ozil’s omission from the squad.
The German missed out due to a slight foot injury, which opened the door for Mohamed Elneny - who completed his transfer from FC Basel on Thursday - to come into the 18.
There was one change from the side that had drawn at Liverpool on Wednesday night, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain starting in the vacant No 10 position.
That meant Mathieu Flamini again started alongside Aaron Ramsey - making his 250th Arsenal appearance - at the base of midfield.
The hosts, meanwhile, were unchanged from the side that beat Norwich City here in midweek. Stoke’s combination of silk and steel has impressed many this season, with home wins over Chelsea and both Manchester clubs all cases in point.
In the build-up to this game, pundits had questioned whether Stoke’s perceived easy-on-the-eye approach would suit Arsenal more than the combative opposition Wenger’s side were used to facing at Britannia Stadium.
It took 20 minutes for the first serious sight of Stoke’s forward flair. Jonathan Walters found Marko Arnautovic just outside the Arsenal area, with the Austrian’s neat flick then creating space for Afellay 20 yards out. The midfielder’s shot was fiercely hit but flew a yard or so off target.
That roused Arsenal, who charged up the other end and created the best opportunity of the half.
Joel Campbell was the provider, finding space 25 yards out before slipping Giroud through on goal. The striker’s was clear of the hosts’ defence but saw his placed effort well smothered by Butland, who had raced out to narrow the angle.
The England international was called upon shortly afterwards to tip Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fizzing shot over, with Petr Cech catching Joselu’s header at the end of a committed first period.
Arsenal started the second half in the ascendancy and could have taken the lead just 70 seconds after the restart.
Again it was Giroud who went close, his header from Ramsey’s corner forcing Butland into a superb reflex save at his near post.
Giroud and Walcott then both had penalty appeals waved away before Stoke rallied. With Nacho Monreal down inside the opposition half, the hosts engineered a quick counter-attack. The ball was worked to Joselu, who turned away from Laurent Koscielny before seeing his powerful drive tipped away by Cech at full stretch. Bojan looked set to tuck the rebound away but Cech scampered back to divert his shot wide.
Joselu forced the Arsenal goalkeeper into another good save midway through the second half but the Gunners were edging their way back on top. All too often though, the final pass went awry when the Gunners entered the final third.
With the game becoming increasingly strechtced, Wenger introduced Alex Iwobi from the bench. The youngster helped create a late chance for Arsenal to win it too, feeding Oxlade-Chamberlain whose through ball was curled over by the lively Campbell.
There would be time for one more chance. Having conceded late on against Liverpool, Arsenal were almost dealt another late blow here. Thankfully for the Gunners, Ramsey was well placed to nod Walters’ header away from goal before Cech kicked Joselu's rebound clear to ensure a point.
Referee: Craig Pawson
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