Arsenal should forget about Manchester United – Stoke could hold the key to title race
Arsenal v Stoke City, Premier League, Emirates Stadium, Kick-off 7.45pm
IT is often said that time is a great healer – but for Arsenal that theory is set to be put to the ultimate test, not once, but twice before the end of the season.
When Stoke City travel to the Emirates tonight for a rearranged league game they will do so almost a year to the day since Aaron Ramsey’s leg was broken by Ryan Shawcross in Arsenal’s 3-1 win at the Britannia Stadium last season.
Time may have healed Ramsey’s wounds – the midfielder is currently continuing his comeback on loan at Cardiff City and scored in last night’s 2-0 win over Leicester – but for Arsenal the memories of that day are as raw as those of Eduardo’s almost identical injury a year previously once were.
If there was ill-feeling between Arsene Wenger and Stoke boss Tony Pulis, pictured, before Ramsey’s injury, fuelled by a well-documented clash over playing style, it has increased dramatically ever since, with Pulis declaring in December that he ‘didn’t give a damn’ for Wenger’s opinions on his team’s style of play. This is now a true grudge match.
None of which is particularly good news for Arsenal; after tonight’s game they then face the journey north to the Britannia on May 7, with every hope of still being locked in a title race with Manchester United.
While they will be favourites to take maximum points against City, these are potentially two of Arsenal’s biggest remaining games of the season. Forget United, Arsenal’s season could be defined that day in the Potteries.
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Shawcross still features alongside Robert Huth in a defence which takes no prisoners, and ex-Chelsea centre-back Huth in particular has proved a useful weapon in a side dangerous from set pieces this season, ans his six league goals, somewhat surprisingly, make him the club’s top scorer.
And therein lies Stoke’s problem: they don’t concede many – never more than two a match this season – but goals have proved hard to come by. It is a problem they sought to solve with the acquisition of John Carew from Aston Villa during in January.
Carew, either on his own or alongside Kenwyne Jones, should be enough to ensure this is anything but a straight forward home win for Arsenal.
But at this stage of the season avoiding injuries is just as paramount as winning points for Arsenal, and Wenger will be happy to achieve both from what could well be an uncomfortable night.
Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny have both been ruled out of tonight’s game and are doubts for Sunday’s Carling Cup final, while Abou Diaby serves the final game of his three-match ban for his red card at Newcastle.
With Manchester United facing three away games in succession at Wigan on Saturday, Chelsea on Tuesday and then Liverpool the following weekend, Wenger will know Arsenal need to put the pressure on Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
They can close the gap to a single point tonight - and then wait and watch to see if United drop points. But beating Stoke can never be taken for granted and will be the only thing on Wenger’s mind this evening.