Arsenal show character to Stoke the fires

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud (centre) scores his side's first goal against Stoke (pic Nick Potts/PA)

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud (centre) scores his side's first goal against Stoke (pic Nick Potts/PA) - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Stoke City 1 Arsenal 4

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez (right) and Stoke City's Glen Johnson battle for the ball (pic Nick Potts/P

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez (right) and Stoke City's Glen Johnson battle for the ball (pic Nick Potts/PA) - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Arsenal showed great character as well as flair as they humiliated Stoke City at the bet365 Stadium – keeping up their chance of a Champions League place.

Goals from Olivier Giroud with a brace, as well as a sublime Mesut Ozil effort and a typically predatory Alexis Sanchez strike sealed the game for Arsene Wenger’s men.

The win means Arsenal are now only one point behind Liverpool with both clubs having two games to play.

But it was the strength of character the team showed when Peter Crouch pulled a goal back to make it 2-1 midway through the second half that will have pleased many Arsenal fans.

Arsenal's Hector Bellerin (centre) battles for the ball against Stoke City's Glenn Whelan and Joe Al

Arsenal's Hector Bellerin (centre) battles for the ball against Stoke City's Glenn Whelan and Joe Allen (pic Nick Potts/PA) - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Times may have changed here at Stoke in terms of personnel on and off the pitch but Wenger opted for the physical presence of Giroud ahead of Danny Welbeck.

Hector Bellerin also started, in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was forced off the St Mary’s pitch before half time during Arsenal’s vital win on Wednesday evening with a slight hamstring strain.

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With Manchester City beating Leicester City 2-1 earlier in the day, nothing more than a win was required for the visitors from North London to keep up their faint bid for a top four spot.

Memories are long on both sides without raking over old ground. Yet, despite the vitriol between the club’s on and off the pitch over the last decade, it was perhaps an improvement that home fans targeted the Arsenal manager - rather than a certain Aaron Ramsey - as the atmosphere crackled through passionate support from both sets of fans.

Arsenal again wore their blue and luminous yellow kit – a strip, that although offends the purists, has yet to experience a defeat.

On eight minutes Shkodran Mustafi angled a header at Stoke’s goal from an Ozil corner. The German defender’s connection and power was good, forcing the recently returned – and extremely talented - goalkeeper Jack Butland to tip over the bar.

Although nothing came from the subsequent corner there was a buzz around the ground. However it didn’t reflect anything on the pitch, it came from the skies above – as another one of those light aircraft commandeered by the Wenger Out faction.

Thankfully such a self-serving act – despite being propelled by aims that are in line with the majority of Arsenal fans, frustrated as they are with a lack of progress in the hunt for titles, if not FA Cups – was soon forgotten as the action on the pitch was far more absorbing.

A deep cross from stand-in right wing-back Bellerin found the head of the other wing back, Nacho Monreal via a slight deflection off a defender.

The Spaniard, another who has been freed up through the role, met the ball with a solid connection only to see the ball thud against Butland’s right hand post and away to safety.

Mustafi earned a yellow card from Mike Dean after he lunged at Xherdan Shaqiri halting the Scot as he embarked on a mazy - if slow-paced - weave on the edge of the Arsenal area.

Stoke fans, furious at the agricultural challenge sang loudly: ‘He didn’t see that/he didn’t see that/Arsene Wenger/he didn’t see that’.

It didn’t take long for the 3,000 travelling fans to respond with the ‘He’s won more than you’ chant.

All good knockabout stuff – as opposed to the darker abuse of Ramsey – which thankfully was absent today.

Just as the game appeared to fall into a lull – on and off the pitch as the temp and atmosphere dropped considerably as play became shapleess and disjoined Arsenal scored.

Two minutes before half time Bellerin got behind the obdurate Stoke back line along the right channel, looked up and squared low into the box. His clever play allowing Giroud to slot home from close range to make it 1-0 as referee Dean blew for half time shortly after.

The second period started with Arsenal keen to put the game to bed by netting a second, just as they did at Southampton on Wednesday night, and their positive intention was rewarded with a sublime Ozil goal 11 minutes after the restart.

anchez was the conductor as he received the ball between the lines. He then showed what a ‘street’ footballer can do that a more formulaic academy-coached player wouldn’t have dreamt of. He stood absolutely still while waiting for the play – and opportunity – to open up around him.

Ozil understood instinctively and made a run into the box as the Chilean found him with a perfectly weighted through-ball.

The German then showed a perfect touch and technique to take the ball in his stride – as well as a calm head to poke the ball past Butland, making it 2-0 into the process.

The goal was a catalyst for the game to explode into life. Shortly afterwards Ryan Shawcross caught Giroud with an elbow in an aerial challenge - much to Wenger’s displeasure.

Cech then proved equal to strong aerial pressure in a dangerous spell from Stoke - as he tipped over a header over from Martins Indi.

Yet minutes later Stoke pulled a goal back from substitute Peter Crouch on 66 minutes as the former Spurs player connected with an Arnautovic cross from close range.

The atmosphere was at fever pitch as the home crowd roared their side on in an attempt to claw back the single goal deficit.

However, Arsenal showed the type of character fans have been crying out for as they withstood fierce commitment and aerial bombardment.

Having done that in a raucous atmosphere they then notched a third through Sanchez – who fired low across Butland’s right hand and into the net to make it 3-1.

Wenger then decided to replace him with Ramsey. It seemed a strange decision – but with the Welshman possibly feeling as if he had a point to prove to his detractors here today, he immediately helped Arsenal net a fourth.

After his run and low shot was saved from Butland, the determined Ramsey showed great tenacity to win the ball and fire it into the box where a predatory Giroud was on hand to fire it in.

Perhaps 4-1 was harsh on Stoke – even if there was discussion that Crouch used his hand as well as his head when scoring – but Arsenal fully deserved it for showing such character when it was absolutely required.

With two games to go and Liverpool very much in their sights for that fourth place spot, Sunderland at the Emirates this week will be crucial.

The team and the manager deservedly earned criticism when they were themselves humiliated at Crystal Place 3-0 in early April – but their recent run including today’s superb steel shown means they have a real chance to grab that coveted fourth place spot from a fading Liverpool.

Which begs the question – why can’t they always play like they today at Stoke?