1 - 0 Lukas Podolski 79'
Arsenal welcomed (?) Stoke City to the Emirates today, thoroughly dominated possession without much thrust to their attack at all, and finally pulled ahead as substitute Lukas Podolski hammered home a deflected free kick to seal the three points for Arsenal.
The first half was a familiar sight for most Arsenal supporters this year. Arsenal had a lot of possession, but there was generally no movement in the final third, and sideways passing was the order of the day. Jack Wilshere was struggling to get involved, and Mikel Arteta looked rusty. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, out on the left, was not off to a very good start on that flank. Arsenal's primary threat came through Theo Walcott, who was more or less eating Andy Wilkinson alive, the latter resorting to all manner of illegal-but-unpunished-by-Chris-Foy tomfoolery to hold Walcott at bay.
Arsenal's first real chance didn't come until they had a corner in the 32nd minute which fell to the Ox four yards from goal. The control was tricky, but he fired a shot with his left that really should have gone in; instead, it was straight at Asmir Begovic. Three minutes later, Olivier Giroud would have two free bites at the apple from another corner, his first header inexplicably directed back across the box rather than straight into the net; the return was saved by Begovic. There followed three minutes of aimless passing until the 40th minute, when Arsenal finally opened up Stoke with a great forward pass, Wilshere finding the Ox through the left channel. The latter tried to curl in at the far post, but Begovic got a hand to the shot.
Arsenal were now a little awake, Abou Diaby passing in to Jack on the edge of the area, leading to a couple of good chances, but other than that and new left back Nacho Monreal clashing heads with Jonathan Walters and opening up a large gash on the latter's head, the half was mainly mediocrity from Arsenal and total lack of attack from Stoke, whatever ambitions Peter Crouch had admirably escorted away from the pitch by Laurent Koscielny, who was excellent on the day.
The second half was more of the same initially, although Nacho and Giroud and Diaby were trying to work some combinations on the edge of the area. Giroud shot over under pressure from Robert Huth on the 56th minute. There was little action beyond Theo Walcott going down and both sides bizarrely carrying on regardless until the 68th minute, when Arsene Wenger deployed the substitutions. Lukas Podolski replaced Ox on the left, and Santi Cazorla came on for Abou Diaby, shifting Jack back into the double pivot. Arsenal looked a little leavened by the changes, the press coming alive a little bit, and Giroud headed wide before Nacho shot well off target in the 74th minute.
But the pressure was building. Wilkinson was finally punished for a foul on Walcott in the 77th minute, earning a yellow card for shenanigans right on the edge of the penalty area. The ball sat 19 yards from goal, dangerous territory for Podolski, and Foy backed up the wall. Podolski strode up and ripped an effort about as hard as he could, the ball took a wicked deflection wrong-footing Begovic, and rolled in. Goal for Arsenal--but wait! The linesman had his flag up. He had his flag up, nobody knew why, and everyone basically mobbed him shouting, Stoke players telling Arsenal players to go away, Wilshere yelling, Arteta yelling. Chris Foy talked with his assistant for a moment, turned, and pointed at the center circle. Goal. Walcott had been in an offside position, but well away from the deflection, and thus not active.
1 - 0 to the Arsenal, and Stoke realized that it was time. Tony Pulis wasted no time bringing on not one, not two, but THREE strikers off the bench: Kenwyne Jones, Michael Owen, and Cameron Jerome. Arsenal now had room on the counter and nearly made it work a couple of times, Theo's decision to pass instead of dribble ending one promising break. There would be four minutes of extra time; in the 92nd minute, Arteta made a hard tackle on Owen, winning the ball cleanly, but Owen didn't care for it too much and tried to punch Arteta in the face. There ensued about three minutes of fighting before Chris Foy decided not to do anything card-related, somehow. Arsenal comfortably saw out the rest of the match.
It was a solid three points, not the prettiest of matches, but on a day when Everton drew and Chelsea lost, Arsenal gained some valuable ground. The defense, to a man, played well, particularly Koscielny, and new man Monreal was, aside from a couple weird touches, good. He offered options in attack, including one overlap that was superb, and his crossing looks vicious. He and Gibbs, when both healthy, present a wonderful prospect.
In one week: Sunderland away, never an easy time.