Stoke away is up there as one of those ‘least desirable’ fixtures I look for at the beginning of the season. If I was given the choice, I’d probably want it to appear at the start of each season, so it can be just got out of the way. A bit like ripping of a plaster; do it quick and early and then get on with your life.
It’s been a horrific place for us to go and with only one win in the league (I think we have won in the cup there once though) to show since Stoke were promoted all those years ago, one does wonder whether there is a psychological barrier that has to be overcome by going there. To put our form in perspective, we’ve had more success away to the oil whores of Man City than the Orcs of Staffordshire.
We’re slap-bang in the middle of a crucial period of tough games in this second half of the season. Speaking to fellow Gooners before the Newcastle game, the general consensus was that seven points would be an amazing return and represent a good opportunity for us to start really believing in our title prospects. Had we beaten Liverpool on Wednesday it would have perhaps taken the pressure off this fixture, but we didn’t, so we really need to be looking at a win and nothing more from today. Sure, a draw will see us go back top on goal difference, but with City just one point behind, it’s hardly the big buffer that we’re supposed to be building, is it?
I suspect Stoke will attempt to play a replica of the game they played against City and, having seen how we reacted to the first 20 minutes of an attempted Liverpool Blitzkrieg, I can see Stoke emulating that today. So for us the opening of the game will be about composure and not finding ourselves dead and buried before halftime. That’s what happened last season at The Britannia, in what was one of the worst performances of the season, masked only by late goals to reflect a closer encounter than it actually was.
Apparently Stoke will be missing Shaquiri, so it will be Walters who will come in, which isn’t much of a boost for us because Walters likes a goal against Arsenal. He’ll be similar to Shane Long in that he’ll run and run all day and so probably be a key component of any attempted Stoke dismantling of us in the first half.
However, whilst there are plenty of reasons to feel nervous ahead of this game, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Our form over the last few months has been good. We have one blog on the copy paper at Southampton, but aside from that we’ve been picking up points despite injuries to key players, with some unexpected stars emerging as much as the players you expect to see perform well. We’ve also got a back five that is much more experienced than last year. Cech and Koscienly will be there when neither was last season, whilst Bellerin is a year old and a year better. He will also have the defensive help of Campbell, so any expectation that Bellerin will be isolated and overrun, can be tempered by the fact he knows he’ll get support from the Costa Rican.
On the other side of the flank the decision will need to be made as to whether Alexis starts or Theo. If the Chilean is 100% fit then he plays, but any lingering doubts must give Arsène thoughts on having him as an option from the bench. Regardless of whether he’s ready, we’ll have a good option for the second half, either it being Theo or Alexis. So that’s good.
In midfield the talk appears to be of whether Elneny will make his debut. Id be surprised that Arsène would be willing to throw him in so soon after just a couple of training sessions with his new teammates, but you never know how long it takes for a player to adapt to a new environment. There’s little doubt that flaws exist between Ramsey and Flamini as a partnership, but at least Arsène knows exactly what he’ll get, so it probably represents less risk. That’s why I’d expect those two to start above the new signing today.
The environment will be hostile, morons will boo Aaron Ramsey for having the temerity to get his leg nearly sliced off those years ago and Arsène will be abused, but we have to rise above the morons and the hostilities and hurt them the best way possible: by winning the game.
Come on Arsenal, let’s break the psychological barrier and lay down a marker for our title credentials.