February 23, 2011
So another midweek game at the Emirates but the contrasts between this week and last couldn’t be more marked. Stoke City are the very antithesis of the way the game is "supposed" to be played. Even Alex McLeish was heard to remark last week that our game at St Andrew’s was "not football as I know it". In short, last week they watched Villa and Messi, this week they’ve got a team that signed John Carew from the Villa and scores really messy goals.
There are a number of myths perpetuated by the media around this particular game. One of these is that Arsenal find it difficult to play against Stoke. Indeed their results at the Britannia Stadium have been patchy – a win and a loss in the league, and a thumping in the Cup – but both times we’ve been to north London we’ve ended up being well beaten.
â€¨â€¨A second myth is that Stoke City are "difficult to beat" or "well organised". The facts do not back this one up. This season has largely been OK. We would all, I think, have settled for being tenth in the league with 12 games left and with a favourable home draw in the FA Cup quarter-finals, but we have lost half our games. We have seemingly lost the ability to draw – the game at St Andrew’s being a case in point, a shocking match that was never going to produce a goal until Birmingham were gifted one in the 93rd minute. We are still in a relegation fight. I say this as I remain convinced Blackpool will go down but after last night’s result they are just a point behind us.â€¨â€¨
What is true about this fixture is that the two clubs do not like each other. But even the origins of this are clouded in mystery. The modern rivalry (there was one in the 1970s over a couple of FA Cup semis) is said to stretch back to Arsène Wenger’s post-match comments after his side were beaten in November 2008. Again this is inaccurate. "The Frenchman" as Tony Pulis generally calls him was pretty complimentary about us that day. It wasn’t until Thomas Sorensen, who had been subject to a challenge by Robin van Persie that led to the striker being sent off, accused Arsenal of lacking backbone a couple of days later that it all kicked off.â€¨â€¨
Things got nastier last year when Aaron Ramsey sustained a broken leg at the Brit. Wenger said some pretty derogatory things about Ryan Shawcross after that (and has attacked him in the press since) and this upset us all greatly. You see, to paraphrase the old Millwall song, at Stoke City, no one likes us, and we do care.â€¨â€¨
So, can the Potters pull off a shock tonight? Well, West Brom and Newcastle have proved it’s possible and they just might have their minds on the Carling Cup or that second leg in the Champions League. Or they might be busy scouting Orient players so they don’t take them so lightly next time. Whatever happens, though, don’t expect to see a feast of football this week – or the managers to have a warm embrace at the end.