Lukas Podolski came off the bench to score the winning goal against Stoke City this afternoon at the Emirates. The Gunners were left frustrated for most of the game by some dogged defending from the visitors and it looked as though Stoke might claim a point before Podolski struck with just 12 minutes to go.
Arsene Wenger handed a debut to Spanish left-back Nacho Monreal having signed him on transfer deadline day from Malaga earlier in the week. Although it is early days, I thought Monreal had a solid debut. He did give the ball away a couple of times near the end, but other than that it was an error free debut from him. I did feel significantly more comfortable watching Monreal than I did seeing Andre Santos against Liverpool in midweek.
Asmir Begovic was rarely troubled early on despite Arsenal looking the better side. Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all had efforts in the early stages of the game, but none of them tested Begovic.
Stoke did go forward, with Peter Crouch seeing his effort blocked and Jonathan Walters saw his ambitious effort comfortably dealt with by Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal.
With half an hour played, Arsenal came close to scoring. Wilshere’s corner found it’s way through to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who shot straight at Begovic’s body from about 4 yards out.
Begovic then made a fine save to prevent Laurent Koscielny scoring with his head and seconds earlier Olivier Giroud wasted a chance by looking to provide an assist for a team-mate rather than taking a good chance on himself.
With five minutes left in the first half, Arsenal continued to knock at the door. Wilshere again played a fine ball that found Oxlade-Chamberlain in space. Chamberlain tried to find the far corner of the net, but again Begovic denied the youngster. Arsenal were being left frustrated, mainly due to some fine goalkeeping by Begovic. Stoke signed Jack Butland earlier in the week for the future. He’s going to have a tough job on his hands if he is to take Begovic’s place in the Stoke team.
Ten minutes into the second half and Monreal showed attacking intent. He exchanged passes with Wilshere before he then provided a lovely cross that couldn’t quite reach Giroud. The Arsenal fans gave a warm reception to Monreal, who had his every touch cheered by the home fans during the first half.
The turning point came when Arsene Wenger made two changes with just over 20 minutes to go. Lukas Podolski replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who had put in a good day’s work and Abou Diaby was replaced by Santi Cazorla.
Andy Wilkinson had struggled to cope with the pace of Theo Walcott all day. Wilkinson fouled Walcott on the edge of the area, perfect range for many Arsenal players. Podolski stepped up to take the free-kick. In truth his free-kick wasn’t very good at all. It took a deflection off of American international Geoff Cameron and past Begovic. The goalkeeper had finally been beaten and in a rather fortuitous fashion too. However, they all count, or so Arsenal thought anyway. Podolski was off celebrating and then turned to see the linesman had his flag up, seemingly to disallow the goal. Theo Walcott was in an offside position when the ball was played in, but Walcott was nowhere near the ball when it went in and didn’t interfere with play. Referee Chris Foy went over and discussed it with his linesman before correctly ruling it a goal. The decision to award the goal was a mixture of sheer joy and relief too.
Stoke’s response would be to go ultra-attacking. Tony Pulis brought on three strikers. Cameron Jerome, Kenwyne Jones and Michael Owen all came on as Stoke searched for a late equaliser, having seemed content with a goalless draw throughout. Michael Owen nearly got in trouble with the referee after reacting to a challenge by Mikel Arteta. Owen appeared to thump Arteta, but looking at the replay, I’m not sure why Owen was upset with Arteta’s challenge. It was perfectly fair and for a player like Owen, who normally wouldn’t react angrily to anything, it was a surprise to see him get annoyed with what appeared to be a perfectly clean tackle.
It wasn’t the greatest game in the world, but Arsenal played well and were worthy of their win. It certainly won’t be a game that lives too long in the memory either, but come the end of the season, these three points could be crucial. All that matters is the three points and Arsenal have got them tonight. As well as this, Everton dropped points at home to Aston Villa (although they scored a last minute equaliser and came from 3-1 down to draw 3-3) so perhaps that should be viewed as a point gained?. Chelsea lost away to Newcastle, so there is now a 5 point gap between Arsenal and Chelsea in 3rd. Catchable.
It’s fair to say with the results so far, this has been a very good weekend for Arsenal in the chase for Champions League football next season.