By Richard Clarke
Arsenal slipped to their third defeat of the season in fractious fashion at Stoke on Saturday.
The home side secured a surprise victory with goals in the 11th minute from Ricardo Fuller and Seyi Olofinjana in the 73rd. Both were the result of Rory Delap’s torpedo throw-ins. Gael Clichy’s long-range strike in injury time was simply too little too late.
Arsenal’s horrible afternoon was capped three minutes after the second Stoke strike when Robin van Persie was sent off for a challenge on keeper Thomas Sorensen. The Dutchman had only been on the pitch for 10 minutes after coming off the bench. The visitors also had Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott stretchered off in the second half. Incredibly they ended the game with just nine men on the pitch.
Arsenal did play well in patches but they failed to pack much of a punch all afternoon and, after Tottenham’s two-goal comeback on Wednesday, this is the last result they needed.
They must recover their Premier League form quickly because the gap between Wenger’s men and the leaders is growing.
The only upside of a dismal day is that Arsenal have ample time to regain the points lost at the Britainnia Stadium this afternoon.
Stoke’s strongarm reputation perhaps precipitated the four changes made by Wenger ahead of the game.
Certainly Samir Nasri, Walcott and Van Persie were players less atune to the scrapping required this afternoon than their replacements - Nicklas Bentdner, Abou Diaby and Alex Song. The final change of the afternoon was enforced. William Gallas hurt his hamstring against Spurs so Kolo Toure returned after missing the last three games.
It was a bitterly cold afternoon in the Potteries and, if you believe the British newspapers, Arsenal’s title chances were in danger of turning a similar temperature in the wake of Tottenham’s comeback in midweek.
However the opening stages suggested Wenger’s men had recovered well. They bossed the early minutes and penned Stoke back into their own half.
But they were to be undone by Stoke’s opening chance. The effectiveness of Delap’s throw-ins have become well-known in Premier League circles this season yet Arsenal were caught out in the 11th minute by the first one they had to handle.
The Irishman flung a flat, fast ball into the area and Fuller battled to get beyond Toure and nudge home a header at the far post.
It was real sucker-punch and it drew the confidence out of Arsenal for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile Stoke were ebullient. They had a willing workhorse up front in Fuller and Delap’s subsequent throw-ins always caused consternation.
However the closest they really came was in the 19th minute when Almunia’s weak punch fell to Delap and Clichy nodded his looping header off the line.
By the midway point of the half, Arsenal had regained much of their poise. Adebayor fired a low shot at Sorensen and Bendtner had a half-chance but failed to control the ball with his chest.
However Stoke now had the luxury of sitting back in defence of their lead. They were breaking when possible then trying to win free-kicks and throw-ins around the area.
Meanwhile, Arsenal were restricted to long shots. The nearest they came to troubling Sorensen was Adebayor’s shot from the left just before the whistle but it flew a few feet over the bar.
Wenger’s side were re-energised after the break. They tore at Stoke in the opening minutes but again failed to force a save from Sorensen.
On the hour Wenger made a change. He brought on Walcott, pulled Song in to centre half and moved Toure to right back.
It nearly brought an immediate dividend when the Ivorian met a Fabregas corner on the edge of the six-yard area. Unfortunately his volley flew a few feet over bar.
After that Wenger brought on Van Persie and switched to 4-3-3. However a Delap throw-in nearly brought a goal against the run of play. This time the ball was only half-cleared and Salif Diao’s low shot was fingertipped away by Almunia.
The Arsenal manager was forced into another change with 19 minutes left. Adebayor had needed lengthy treatment earlier in the half following a challenge from Ryan Shawcross. When he got another knock he had to go off and Carlos Vela came on.
Worse was to come. Stoke won a throw on the left, Delap did his thing and Olofinjana bundled the ball in the far post. It was a scrappy goal but it did not matter to the home fans.
And there was still worse to come after that. Sorensen delayed collecting a chest back from Andy Griffin and Van Persie challenged him strongly. Referee Styles saw enough show the Dutchman a straight red card.
Walcott was also stretchered off in the dying seconds, leaving them with just nine men on the pitch.
Incredibly they then scored. Clichy chose an odd time to register his first goal as a professional footballer. His low, long-range drive crept into the corner to give Arsenal a little hope.
But the whistle blew soon afterwards.
Referee: Rob Styles