Saturday, August 25, 2012

Stoke City vs. Arsenal preview

This game has become one of the big grudge matches in English football since the promotion of Stoke City to the Premier League. It's no secret that managers Tony Pulis and Arsene Wenger aren't the best of friends. The mutual dislike started when Arsene Wenger called Stoke a rugby team, and the rivalry reached its zenith when Ryan Shawcross injured Aaron Ramsey with a horrific tackle at the Britannia Stadium in 2010.

Stoke will be happy to start their home campaign at the Britannia on the back of a slightly fortuitous draw at Reading on the opening weekend of the season. Stoke have only lost once against Arsenal at the Britannia, and the passionate home crowd always seem to ratchet up the decibels when the Gunners come visiting.

Pulis' strategy is going to be no secret. The strategy will be based on imposing Stoke's physicality on Arsenal's creative midfielders, and launch an aerial bombardment against the Gunners defence. Dean Whitehead will be missed, but either Rory Delap or Wilson Palacios could easily fill in his role. Peter Crouch will be the main goalscoring threat, with quality supply expected from Matthew Etherington and new signing Michael Kightly, who is expected to feature unless Jermaine Pennant recovers in time. Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross will be expected to add a threat from corners and set-pieces.

Arsene Wenger had a chastening experience during the opening day draw at home against Sunderland. With the focus on Robin Van Persie's departure refusing to die away, the last thing Wenger wanted was a frustrating goalless performance to start the home campaign.

The sole bright spot for Wenger on the opening day was the performance of Santi Cazorla on debut. Cazorla was exceptional throughout and should arguably have had the sole assist of the match when he laid a chance on a plate for fellow new recruit Olivier Giroud, only for the Frenchman to fire wide with the goal at his mercy. The one flaw in Wenger's tactics was that they were too many players who nullified the midfield stylings of Cazorla and Mikel Arteta. The Spanish duo have the potential along with either of Jack Wilshire or Aaron Ramsey to be the best midfield trio in the league. Unfortunately the runs of Theo Walcott, the erratic play of Gervinho and the poor movement of Lukas Podolski failed to sync with the brilliance of the midfield. If Arsenal are to have a good season Wenger will either have to ask the trio to improve, or be ruthless in dropping them, although the historical precedent for Wenger axing under-performing players isn't very good.

Arsenal's record at the Britannia would suggest they are in for a really tough game against Stoke. Pulis will ensure that his players don't give an inch, and it will be down to the likes of Cazorla, Arteta and possibly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to win the game through their creativity. However Stoke are just as likely to pose some questions of the Arsenal defence, with the possibility of Carl Jenkinson being exposed continuously by Etherington. As both teams settle into the season, a 1-1 draw seems to be the most likely outcome.