The morning started badly. Arseblog carried the potentially bad tidings, ‘Whispers this morning say we’re going there without Mesut Ozil’. At half-time in the mid-table clash at Anfield Sky confirmed our worst fears. Ten of the starting eleven in midweek were supplemented by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Mohamed Elneny was named on the bench, but there was no place either for Alexis.
There are two sides to everything, I suppose, and the fear that we were facing Stoke without Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil, and Alexis was tempered by the fact that they wouldn’t face further injury in the Potteries. Silver linings and all that.
The animosity that has existed since 1971, but has heightened since Shawcross butchered Aaron Ramsey in 2010, was evident from the off. It transmitted from the stands to the pitch in the opening scrappy phases of play. Wollscheid denied Theo Walcott a run on goal with a blatant body check, but the referee, Craig Pawson, chose not to demonstrate that he understood the laws of the game, or the nature of this fixture, by keeping his cards in his pocket.
It was the twentieth minute before an effort on goal of any substance was conjured up, Afellay blazing wide of Petr Cech’s left hand post. It prompted Arsenal into action at the other end. Butland had to be very alert to deny Olivier Giroud, put through beautifully by Joel Campbell who is proving to have a quality final ball in him these days.
Eight minutes later Aaron Ramsey saw an effort deflected away for a corner. This apparently classified him as a practitioner of solo sexual practices by those behind the goal who really should restrict themselves similarly, and preferably for life. Next to try his luck, but sadly off target, was Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. He avoided the ire of the locals, possibly because his father plied his trade here until mercifully being offered an escape route by Sheffield Wednesday.
Ten minutes from the break Joselu’s tame effort brought a comfortable save out of Cech, but the Gunners defence managed to give the ball away to Bojan, thankfully off target with his effort too. Lacking any sort of co-ordinated play, the match was a fractured, bitty affair, doubtless to the satisfaction of Mark Hughes who would not have wanted us to get into any sort of rhythm.
Goal-less at the break, the first forty-five minutes will never feature in a season highlights package. However, less than a couple of minutes after the restart we came close to opening the scoring. Giroud got a solid header on Ramsey’s corner but once again Butland produced a fine save to deny the Frenchman.
As the contest warmed up an Arsenal break foundered when Wallscheid and Giroud had a coming together in the box which ended with the Frenchman on the deck. Nothing doing according to an out-of-his-depth referee, nor seconds later when Walcott was tugged down just outside the box.
If Butland had produced the two saves of the match to date, then Cech was to level that particular contest with an outstanding double save in the 57th minute. The match had entered a new phase with both teams now searching for an opening goal that could prove decisive.
The substitutions were kick-started by Stoke. Bojan, perhaps a little frail for such a poorly arbitrated contest, made way for Diouf. A couple of corners were dealt with by an Arsenal defence showing admirable durability, if wasteful in distribution. To be fair the hosts too were holding up under occasional pressure, although the subtleties of the game remained a mystery to the intellectually-challenged baying and booing in the stands.
Theo was withdrawn to give Alex Iwobi a chance to make a name for himself. Whelan had to be on his toes to block an effort from the Ox. “COME ON ARSENAL” encouraged those in literates corner. Bellerin galloped up in support of the attack and won a corner. The visitors ambition was clear, but on both sides limbs were wearying.
With just over five minutes remaining the Ox set Campbell free on the right hand edge of the box, but our modern day Wiltord screwed his effort wide after cutting inside. That was a shame because nobody on the pitch deserved a goal more. It prompted Hughes to send on Adam and Van Ginkel for Arnautovic and Afellay, a safety first measure surely? No, Stoke created mayhem in the box when Laurent Koscielny headed a Whelan effort over the bar for a corner, and Rambo had to clear off his line from the resulting scrum.
Calum Chambers was sent on for the Ox, presumably to secure the point that would take Arsenal back to the top of the league, the third team to sit atop the rest this weekend. So it proved. The second-half had been more a spectacle than the first, and this didn’t deserve to be a 0-0 match, but credit for that goes to both goalkeepers.
To depart the Britannia, and it’s ‘special’ inhabitants, with a point has the potential to prolong our inability to defeat them away in our title winning seasons as highlighted in the preview.
I’ll take that tonight. To go there with that starting eleven and still secure a point is a marked upgrade on recent performances there. Bring on Chelsea.