A few rather unexpected names are on the team sheet today. As expected Fabianski in goal and the back four of Coquelin-Sol-Silvestre-Traore, not a defense that will have ever played together before and that will be properly tested against a very physical Stoke assault. Eastmond is holding in midfield with Cesc and Denilson alongside him. Then a front three of Walcott-Vela-JET, I reckon Vela will be given the more central role but it may well be a more fluid system allowing the three to swap around a bit. Stoke line up with a robust 4-4-2 formation and the power of Fuller and Sidibe up top. A big test for Sol in his return, no doubt, but some real quality is on the bench if we need it in form of Rosicky, Ramsey, Arshavin and Eduardo.
Coquelin - Sol - Silvestre - Traore
Denilson - Cesc
Walcott - Vela - JET
Unfortunately the game did not start well, a long throw from Delap on the right wing saw a very pacey ball hurled in at a a low trajectory, Fuller nipped in and head it in at the near post, one nil to Stoke. Some people will blame Fabianski but it was a very tricky ball for him to attack given its height, it was more disappointing that none of our defenders managed to attack the ball or block Fuller's run.
There was little flow to the game early on, Stoke relying on some rather ugly direct football as usual. Sol made a few good interceptions, Eastmond was tidying things up nicely in front of the back four and winning a fair few aerial challenges. Our moves broke down too frequently from some rather loose touches and casual passes. Silvestre was lucky not to give away a penalty when Silvestre took his leg away in the box, we then broke excellently but it was wasted by a very poor final delivery from Walcott on the right, it was typical of much we had done over the half.
Typically the referee was letting far too much go. Cesc was chopped down at least three times well after he had moved the ball on, the ref played on, did nothing about the dangerous fouls and then never brought the play back for the fouls as no advantage had come. I simply cannot understand how a referee can allow players to slide in very late, get nothing of the ball and then escape without even a warning. As we grew into the game and our passing looked a tad crisper, another dangerous tackle was left unpunished by the referee Martin Atkinson. The rather uncultured Shawcross went in very late on Cesc with his studs dangerously raised, not much different in nature to the Gallas tackle in midweek which resulted in the hysterical media reaction. Atkinson's reaction? Not even a verbal warning for Shawcross, truly pathetic. The time being wasted by Delap taking thirty seconds before every throw in was also something the referee should have done more about.
We became more dominant as the half wore on, Stoke could not keep up their high pressing game and we were allowed a bit more time to knock the ball around. Just as the half had almost drawn to a close, a goal came when it did not appear that likely. A dubious free kick was given, although the arm was hanging away to the side of the body as it blocked Cesc's flick on, and Denilson took full advantage, it was cut back to him, his low right footed effort was heading low into the bottom corner, it was deflected but this didn't affect its direction much, into the bottom corner it went. A bit of pressure now built, a series of corners ensued in between another couple of late Stoke tackles from behind. Strangely only two minutes of injury time were played, even though Delap had wasted about five minutes all on his own. One one at half time it was, fair on the balance of the game but more sharpness was needed for the second half.
The aerial bombardment continued in the second half, it was certainly not an easy game for a goalkeeper to come in for, on the whole Fabianski dealt well with some very tricky situations. It was a pretty even contest, Atkinson continued to let some Stoke filth go unpunished, one thigh high lunge from Huth's studs on Vela somehow escaped a booking, numerous sliding tackles from behind continued to go unpunished. Cesc and Denilson were trying to get things going, a bit of joy came down the left, Vela and Traore gave us some pace and width which did cause some trouble at times. Walcott was having a stinker, ineffective, sloppy in possession and not probing the right channels. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas had a pretty solid game, of note he helped out in a few tricky defensive situations to good effect. Little was created, the only goal threat a belting Cesc thirty yarder that forced a Sorensen tip over.
A triple substitution came with twenty minutes to play, Walcott, Coquelin and JET were replaced by Arshavin, Ramsey and Eduardo. Coquelin had done well after a nervy first twenty minutes, especially given he was playing out of position. It looked worrying when Silvestre was hacked late (what a surprise) by Delap and went down holding his knee, luckily he recovered quickly. Vela was almost played in, just denied by a well times Higginbotham sliding tackle. Against the run of play Stoke went ahead again, the defensively dodgy Denilson was left on his heels by Sidibe, his excellent cross found Fuller's head which did the rest, to be fair this was a very well worked goal. A deflected Cesc free kick flashed wide, Ramsey's left footed drive blazed well over. Then Stoke scored again, Eastmond was wrestled over with some shirt tugging, Etherington broke and crossed expertly for the marginally offside Whitehead to slot home. Then a what would have been a fourth was disallowed for a clear Tuncay handball. Another cynical Stoke lunge from behind saw another dangerous freekick given, Cesc's effort hit the wall. Three one and the game was over, no FA Cup glory for at least another year.
Almunia, Eboue, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy, Gibbs, Song, Nasri, Ramsey, Diaby, Rosicky, Arshavin, RVP, Bendtner, Eduardo- these are the 16 players who did not start this game for various reasons, it shows that this Arsenal side was well below a second string eleven. Overall it was a very even game, the real difference was the fact that we lacked a proper striker to lead the line and that Stoke showed more quality than us in the final third. The referee Marin Atkinson's incompetent leniency made the game much easier for Stoke, they were allowed to tackle from behind all day without even one yellow card being shown, the fact that Shawcross' stamp down Cesc's calf escaped even a verbal warning symptomatic of the way in which Atkinson's incompetence allowed thuggery to prosper. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas worked hard but it was a big ask for him to lead the line, if we had had a recognised striker the outcome could have been very different.
Fair play to Stoke, you can't blame them for playing the dire negative over-physical football that they do, they are a small club and would be killed if they tried to play pretty stuff against us. I can't say I like the way they play but it is effective, especially when catalysed by lenient refereeing that allows their largely illegal pressing game to work. Stoke committed 20 fouls (that Atkinson spotted) to our 8, some of which were rather cynical and/or nasty, they got not one booking. Our squad has not been quite strong enough to maintain the challenge on this front, with the Villa game coming up on Wednesday Arsene obviously didn't want to gamble with the fitness of a few key players, some of whom are fatigued and others only just back from injury. Stoke away is a tough game, most of the youngsters gave a good account of themselves, Eastmond in particular, Sol had a pretty solid afternoon given his recent lack of competitive action. On the negative Theo Walcott had another afternoon to forget, he would do well to take a long hard look at himself rather than being so aggressive towards the officials at times, the manager's patience with Theo should not be infinite. Our eggs appear to be amassing in one basket, whether resting so many key men today was the right decision remains to be seen.