There’s a reason that playing a match on a cold night at Stoke is one of the most dreaded prospects for Premier League teams and Arsenal FC will find out why on Sunday, as they travel to the Britannia Stadium to play against a new look Stoke City side.
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In the reverse fixture back in September, the Gunners handed Stoke a 2-0 defeat at home at the Emirates Stadium. The Potters were then in the middle of a rather embarrassing run of form that saw them lying at the bottom half of the table. But they have since resurrected their league campaign and are currently in the 7th position on the league table.
Arsenal, on the other hand, are gunning for the title and a win in this match would see them leapfrog Manchester City and Leicester City to the top of the table, with a 2 point advantage over the rest of the pack.
Mark Hughes v/s Arsene Wenger
There is no love lost between these two managers, thanks in large part to a famous incident in the 2009 Carling Cup, where Wenger refused to shake his opposite number’s hand after seeing his Arsenal side lose to Mark Hughes’ Manchester City. The Stoke manage will be relishing the chance to take full advantage of the Britannia Stadium’s hostile away environment to ensure he can dent the Gunners’ title hopes in a big way.
In the past the Potters would depend on a resilient defence and a physical style of play to eke out results at home but now, thanks to Hughes’ transformation of the side, they can boast of the kind of attacking prowess that will worry any top side. They exhibited this perfectly in their victories over the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Although they will be missing one of their key men in Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri, they have enough squad depth to cover for him.
Arsene Wenger will be aware of the threat that faces him at the Britannia, but will be encouraged by the great run of form that Arsenal are having, which has seen them enjoying one of their best seasons in years. Their last league outing was a 3-3 draw against Liverpool and, despite the draw, Arsenal will be boosted by the fact that the good form of striker Olivier Giroud has more than made up for a dip in form of sorts for star play maker Mesut Ozil. Wenger will be counting on his team to continue playing fast paced, passing and attacking football to expose Stoke and controlling the midfield through Ozil will be a big part of his game plan.
1. Ryan Shawcross v/s Mesut Ozil
The English center back forms the backbone of the Stoke defence and will be deployed to neutralize the Gunners’ most potent attacking threat, midfielder Mesut Ozil. The German has already notched up 16 assists this season and can expose the opponents defensive frailties in a heartbeat. It is probable that Hughes’ will instruct one of his men to man mark Ozil, so as to not give him space or time on the ball and Shawcross could well be deployed in such a role.
It will be one of the key battles in front of the Stoke City goal and it will be interesting to see if Shawcross can effectively neutralize the threat of Ozil and stop him from adding to his tally of assists.
2. Marko Arnautovic v/s Hector Bellerin
In the absence of Shaqiri, one of the Potters’ most dangerous goal scoring threats will be the big, bad Austrian who has a tally of 7 goals and 4 assists this season and loves to score against big opponents. He will, however, have to face off against one of the League’s best right-backs in Hector Bellerin and this could prove to be a decisive competition in the match.
Arnautovic boasts of physicality, but will have trouble against the blistering pace of the Spaniard Bellerin. The Stoke man could take advantage of Bellerin’s attack minded style though and punish Arsenal if the fullback doesn’t track back quick enough.
3. Jack Butland v/s Olivier Giroud
The Frenchman has silenced those Arsenal fans who claimed that they need a new striker with his performances of late. Having scored 12 in the league so far, Olivier Giroud is a clever poacher and his presence in the opposition penalty area can often spell disaster for them. In this regard, the Potters’ young English keeper Jack Butland will have to be on his toes and able to read what the striker is up to when the ball is played long or from corner kicks.
Although it’s a battle against everyone for the goalie, as we saw in the game against Liverpool, Giroud can thrive on shoddy keeping and the Stoke keeper would do well to be aware of the Frenchman’s presence in the penalty area.
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