After a promising yet disappointing opening day performance which yielded only a point against Sunderland, it’s been a wobbly week for the Arsenal.
Alex Song left for Barcelona, Nuri Sahin was hi-jacked by Liverpool and Robin van Persie opened his Manchester United account against over Fulham. Frankly I’d like to give all three of them a slap around the chops, but that’s hardly the point.
A trip to Stoke, the team that prefer the scrappy joy of rough-and-tumble over the elegance of a well-constructed passage of passing football — Peter Crouch’s goal of the season was hilarious in its irony — is next up and proposes an intriguing challenge. The Premier League is relentless in its pace and demand throughout the season and it’s startling to think that this already feels like must-win territory. Given Chelsea’s lightning start and the threat of Liverpool and Manchester United games on our horizon that’s exactly what it is.
Everybody who took part against Sunderland is available again — yes, even Abou! — with only Wojciech Szczesny a doubt. I fully expect him to play though, given the fact that he’s a tough cookie and his importance is intensified by the inevitable oncoming long-ball barrage. Alex Oxlade-Central-Midfielder-Chamberlain returns to the squad while Laurent Koscielny is still out with a gammy calf.
My gut says that Wenger will make one change to the side that played last week. I expect Olivier Giroud, our 6’4 beast, to come in for one of Theo Walcott or Gervinho (hopefully the former) with Lukas Podolski pushing to the left side of the front three. Both Giroud and Podolski are highly physical players and they will not be bullied by a Stoke side that have made no significant improvements to their squad this season. This game feels tailor-made for Giroud and I hope he opens the scoring to banish the demons of his woeful slice against Sunderland.
The timing of Song’s departure, on the eve of an away contest against perhaps the league’s most physical side, has intensified the fear that we lack the power to win a contest like this. It seems clear that Wenger’s policy is that keeping the ball at all costs prevents the need for overt physicality and in Mikel Arteta and new boy Santi Cazorla he has two of the league’s best technicians. I expect Diaby to play alongside them to add some height and class and complete an excellent midfield trio.
Predictions are always risky business but I expect us to win today. Stoke are a strong side at home but we have a good blend of technical expertise and physical power and that should hold us in good stead. The mental and organisational side of the game will be all-important but with Arteta’s influence already showing and more emphasis being placed on our defending of counter-attacks, I feel optimistic.
How about you?