Theo Walcott was stretchered off with an ankle sprain which will keep him out of the Carling Cup final this Sunday. He was not the only injury substitution as Arsene Wenger decided to bring on Andrey Arshavin for captain Cesc Fabregas in the 14th minute amidst hamstring injury concerns. Arsenal were already missing Laurent Koscielny and Robin Van Persie.
However it was Sebastian Squillaci’s 8th minute goal and his first for Arsenal that proved decisive. It was Nicklas Bendtner providing a deja vu moment and the assist for the central defender to nod the ball home. He had done the same last weekend against Orient with Rosicky the benefactor.
What followed in the first half was trademark high possession football without being too threatening. The killer entry pass was lacking although Arshavin tried putting Bendtner and Walcott through. The Russian seems to be relishing his role of instigator once more since his Barca goal with most of the attacks coming down the left.
But the second half was a different story as a renewed and physical Stoke came out smoking and put the defence to the test. Ryan Shawcross came close with a header deflected off Johan Djourou. Robert Huth came close with another header as Stoke resorted to set pieces. But Arsenal hung tough and one has to say Sebastian Squillaci had a good game at both ends. Johan Djourou was tough to beat in the air – he’s been outstanding in that department.
Sunday’s Carling Cup final will see an equally physical and determined Birmingham side. A bruised Gunners squad will have to dig deep to keep up with the crucial stretch end stretch.