Full disclosure: I hate Stoke City Football Club. There are a lot of teams that I dislike, teams where when they face Arsenal I feel like anything but a win is unacceptable (not just for the sake of the table, but also for posterity). But I don't think there's a team in the world that brings as much vitriolic hatred to my heart, soul, and other tangible and ethereal body parts as Stoke City does. Clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea and Manchester United are rivals, but Stoke City is something near the sporting equivalent of "pure evil" that must be vanquished, like an invading horde bent on the destruction of our way of life.
A huge part of that is the Aaron Ramsey Incident of February 2010, and the aftermath and reaction to it. I am still upset that it happened at all, and it irks me in particular that somehow, against all logic, Ryan Shawcross was made into the victim. Poor Ryan was so broken up by potentially ruining another player's career, guys! How dare Arsenal fans jeer him - it's so damaging to his fragile constitution. And when Aaron Ramsey steps on the pitch at the Britannia, he's jeered. Stoke City: the doublethink of football, where the target of a dangerous tackle is the villain and the tackler is the victim. More than the negative football, the ball-scrubbing, the long throws, and everything else, this is why I want to beat Stoke. The rest of it I dislike but have no real right to decry - there's no law that says you have to play pretty football, and their style of play is certainly effective for them. But damn it, I'm going to be bitter about Aaron Ramsey for a long, long time.
So, now that I've vented a bit, on to the team news. Stoke, horrifyingly enough, sit above Arsenal on the Premier League table, in 8th position to our 11th. However, we're only two points back - so a win would take the Gunners past Stoke (and Norwich City), and two points back from Liverpool (CLUB IN CRISIS). The table is a little jumbled at the moment in part because of European fixtures, but three points tomorrow would certainly help Arsenal's continued scratching and clawing up the standings.
Stoke's starting XI is a bit tough to pinpoint. Players like Shawcross and Rory Delap and Peter Crouch will almost definitely feature. On the other hand, a couple of injured players may return, but are still in doubt. Striker Kenwyne Jones missed about a month with a hamstring problem, but returned Thursday against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League (or whatever the hell it's called this year) and scored. He's certainly in play for tomorrow, though two games in three days after a month off may be a bit much. Winger Jermaine Pennant also has a hamstring issue, and will be subject to a late fitness test. Defender Danny Higginbotham has been out with knee ligament damage since April, but he has played for Stoke's reserves recently, and may be available.
History seems to paint Stoke into a corner. They haven't won at the Arsenal since before my parents were married: 1981, a 1-0 horror. They have never secured a point at the Emirates, and have scored only one goal here in the league. They've lost their last two away games, and have scored only six goals this season. Arsenal have won three straight home matches in the league, and have won four of their last five against Stoke. Of course, head-to-head matchups change as the players do, and with the turnover this year for the Gunners, this could be a wholly different match than those that preceded it.
You already know much of what to expect for the Arsenal first XI. Our right-backs are crocked: Bacary Sagna against Spurs, and Carl Jenkinson last week. Johan Djourou sounds like the favorite to get the nod there since we don't have anyone left in the club who's actually played the position, but if Arsene Wenger gets frisky Francis Coquelin might get a late inclusion. With Kieran Gibbs' stomach inflammation (due, I'm told, to a bad batch of meat pies) Andre Santos, Defensive Winger Extraordinaire will start. Thomas Vermaelen is perpetually two weeks out, so the burgeoning partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny returns once more. Koscielny, of course, has said he could possibly play on the right side, but I doubt Wenger would break up what's been a pretty good center of defense of late. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta will, one assumes, start in midfield, with either Aaron Ramsey or Tomas Rosicky; the latter has played a lot lately so Ramsey may start, but Rosicky has been good so it could go either way. For sentimental reasons, I lean toward Ramsey. Robin van Persie up top, flanked by Theo Walcott and Gervinho is the most likely strike force.
In case you couldn't tell from my opening rant, I would really like to win this game, and win it emphatically. I feel that there is offensive potential in this squad that remains latent, and though Stoke are good defensively (they've conceded eight goals in eight league games this season) this could very well be the day it's awakened. Set pieces will, as usual against Stoke, be an issue. Mertesacker is tall, and that may help, but I see the Potters scoring from a free kick (or throw-in) at some point.
Crouch scores on a long throw-in at some point during the first half-hour. Walcott answers before half-time on a breakaway fed by Arteta. Late in the match, in a goalmouth scramble, the captain maintains his absurd scoring record, and some nervy late defending bends but doesn't break, getting us a win. Ramsey kicks Shawcross in the groin twice; the referee allows it both times. Arsenal 2-1 Stoke City
I got a lot of the historical stats from this BBC match preview. Credit where it's due, and all that.