Arsenal vs. Stoke City
Emirates Stadium, London
Kickoff: 8 AM Eastern (US)
Arsenal come home to face hated not-real-rivals-but-team-that-always-are-dicks Stoke Sunday. There's a positive and a negative to this year's Stoke team. The positive is that noted rat-man Tony Pulis finally was fired after last season, and with him has gone the long-ball, kick-the-other-guys-to-death style that Stoke has embraced for years. The negative? He was replaced by Mark Hughes, formerly of Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers (among others), who is the worst. Are they still Stoke, or have they morphed into Stokealona? I'll believe it when I see it. And we'll see tomorrow.
Hopefully, if the style is changing and the kicking is decreasing, this can be the beginning of the end of the long war between Arsenal and Stoke. If you're a new fan you may not know the reason for the hatred that I and many other Arsenal fans feel for Stoke. You may not know quite why Aaron Ramsey's resurgence has been such a visceral, emotional thing for people. I wrote this a few years ago on my old blog about it, about a year after Stoke's Ryan Shawcross split Ramsey's leg in two with an awful tackle. [Editor's note: if you want to get better as a writer, write a lot! Because...I have since then.] It's been a long road back, but Ramsey is now one of our best players. He's back, and I hope he scores tomorrow. It would be a fitting bookend to the injury, and we'd all be able to finally move on. And now that he's Arsenal's best player (for the moment), I wouldn't be that shocked if it happened.
Also, this is the first home game since Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil on the final day of the summer transfer window. Since he's started both of his games so far, and Arteta is unlikely to be ready to replace him, I would assume Ozil will start in his home debut. So that should be pretty fun to see. Stoke has always been one of the cliche choices when someone wants to claim that foreign players can't take the physicality of the Premier League, so even though that's a dumb cliche and Stoke are allegedly no longer Stoke, it will be interesting to see how he copes. My guess would be "well."
So! Who plays? Here is a list of guys who played the full 90 minutes on Wednesday - three days ago - in Marseille:
- Olivier Giroud
- Jack Wilshere
- Mesut Ozil
- Aaron Ramsey
- Kieran Gibbs
- Laurent Koscielny
- Per Mertesacker
- Bacary Sagna
- Wojciech Szczesny
So, hardly anyone important. But as injured players start to return, the bench and possible starting lineup strengthens. Thomas Vermaelen has been on the bench for Arsenal in each of the past two games, getting ten minutes against Sunderland but failing to get on the pitch in France. According to Arsene Wenger this week, Mikel Arteta has a chance to be in the squad tomorrow. Will either start? Possible, but I doubt it. But I would not be surprised to see one or both make late appearances, especially if Arsenal have a lead to protect. Vermaelen is the much more likely of the two to get a start, to allow either Koscielny or Mertesacker to rest, and at home I'd be far less hesitant to mix up the defensive chemistry.
If I were in charge, this is the lineup I would consider using:
Sagna - Mertesacker - Vermaelen - Gibbs
Flamini - Ramsey
Walcott - Giroud - Wilshere
One of these days, we're going to have to try the Koscielny-Vermaelen partnership again, but...uh...not tomorrow, please.
PREDICTION: Aaron Ramsey assumes his ultimate form and just goes absolutely crazy. When the dust clears, the Stoke goal is in tatters, Ramsey is a foot taller, and the score is somewhere in the neighborhood of 28-0 to Arsenal. Stoke is summarily relegated.
Arsenal 3-0 Stoke.