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Lukas Podolski’s deflected free-kick proved the difference as Arsenal eked out a much-needed 1-0 victory against Stoke City.
After securing just five points from as many Barclays Premier League matches, the home side were in danger of losing ground on the top four coming into the game. Arsene Wenger’s side looked set for another frustrating day at the office - thanks in no small part to an outstanding display by Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. The 25-year-old gave a fine first-half display in which he superbly denied Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain either side of stopping a Laurent Koscielny header.
It was those in front of Begovic that came to the fore in a second half in which it looked like Stoke’s stubborn defence would help end a run of 10 successive defeats in league and cup at Arsenal. However, substitute Podolski ended those hopes 12 minutes from time with a low free-kick that deflected in off Geoff Cameron.
Arsenal made five changes for the match, with deadline-day signing Nacho Monreal handed his debut. The Spain defender replaced the injured Kieran Gibbs at left-back in an Arsenal side that started much better than they had against Liverpool in midweek. Robert Huth blocked early threatening balls from Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere before Oxlade-Chamberlain, making his first league start since January 13, struck wide.
Wilshere blazed over after a Walcott cutback failed to find a team-mate as Arsenal continued to press for an early goal. It took 15 minutes for Wojciech Szczesny to be tested by Stoke. Jonathan Walters’ strike from distance was comfortably dealt with by the Poland goalkeeper, who then watched a Peter Crouch snapshot deflect off Koscielny and out for a corner.
There were rare moments of relief for a Stoke side on the back foot, with Olivier Giroud heading a Abou Diaby cross into the ground when Arsenal returned to the attack. Andy Wilkinson then blocked a right-footed strike from Walcott and, after Ryan Shawcross sent over a wayward volley, Begovic came to the fore.
First the Bosnian denied Oxlade-Chamberlain from close range after a Wilshere corner fell straight into his path and Begovic was the scourge of Arsenal again in the 34th minute, denying a Koscielny header with another block. Four minutes from the break the Stoke goalkeeper was at it again. Wilshere played an exquisite through ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose curled effort looked destined to ripple the net until Begovic superbly palmed wide.
Arsenal continued to press for the opener as half-time approached but the only action of note was a clash of heads between Monreal and Walters. The latter got a bloody head in the challenge but was patched up with a bandage similar to the one donned by team-mate Huth.
The German centre-back was called into action shortly after play resumed for the second half, rising well to stop Giroud bundling home a Monreal cross. Giroud fired wide under pressure soon after but as Arsenal’s attacks became less frequent Wenger brought on Santi Cazorla and Podolski in a bid to inject new life into his side’s attack, with Diaby and Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced.
The introduction of the Spaniard almost had an immediate impact as Cazorla sent in a floated cross to Giroud which the Frenchman was unable to head on target. Glenn Whelan picked up a booking as City looked to hold off the hosts, but the Gunners finally took the lead in the 78th minute.
Wilkinson received a yellow card for bringing down Walcott on the edge of the penalty area, allowing substitute Podolski to send a low free-kick that deflected in off Cameron’s heel. It had looked like the goal would be chalked off for an apparent offside against Walcott but, after consulting with his assistant, referee Chris Foy awarded the goal.
Cazorla came close to making it 2-0 shortly afterwards, only for Begovic to get the slightest touch to send it behind. Michael Owen, Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome all came on for the final stages at Tony Pulis looked for a leveller.
Arsenal's victory takes them to within a point of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, who travel to West Bromwich Albion no Sunday.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger: “They made it difficult for us, they were well organised, defended very deeply and we didn't find the space but kept going. We were a bit lucky on the goal but overall we deserve this win.
“They know that we try to play a game based on movement and technique and they oppose us with a very strong defence. You have to give them credit for the way they defended today, but overall I don't think too much happened.
“We are a team who can create chances, and score goals. Today it was not the case - we created chances but could not get the goals. But still I am happy that for a long time now, we didn't concede and the defence looked solid. The satisfaction is that Nacho Monreal had a good start for a player who just arrived yesterday and is in the team today. He did not have time to think about it, but he got stronger and stronger during the game.”
Stoke manager Tony Pulis: "Obviously we're disappointed. We've leaked a lot of goals in the last couple of games and although we've played Man City twice, Chelsea and now Arsenal it has been a difficult run.
"But that was the same at the beginning of the season and we only have Manchester United and Tottenham at our place now. We've got most of the big ones out of the way now."
|14 May 2013||v Wigan (H)|
|09 Feb 2013||v Sunderland (A)|
|06 Apr 2013||v West Brom (A)|
|20 Apr 2013||v Fulham (A)|
|19 May 2013||v Newcastle (A)|
|04 May 2013||v QPR (A)|