Stoke, for the uninitiated or those of you who never look beyond the Premiership, are a mid-table Coca-Cola Championship side. That means they’re in the Division below ours. If you judge such things by the goals for and against columns, which I do, they have the best defensive record in their division and also the weakest attack by a mile. Only WBA and Kidderminster Harriers have scores fewer League goals this season. The most obvious connections between our two clubs are Lee Dixon and Stevie Bould. But some might also recall that Stoke once acted as a retirement home for the likes of David Herd, George Eastham, Alan Hudson, and Brian Talbot. But never forget that the ‘Potters’, and how sad is that nickname, also foisted a useless lump called Lee Chapman on us. For that I can never forgive them.
Stoke fans were given the Clock End which meant the North Bank rang to the sound of the Clock Enders on a grey day at Highbury. Stoke kicked off in a silver-grey kit towards the North Bank and the early pace was brisk. Van Persie who was able to make or find quite a bit of space and got in a couple of early shots, the second of which was not too far away. Reyes had a reasonable run while at the other end Emmanuel Eboue, who didn’t make the back page of the inept matchday programme, covered well and looked quite at home. Ade Akinbiyi made the most of a Senderos slip and hit a great shot that was well saved by Jens.
Neil Barry applied the usual F A Cup rules where the underdogs can tug, push and shove whom they like while the Gunners just had to look at a Stoke player to concede a free kick. It was a lively match but as usual the away team played one up and ten back in defence. Some good runs by Rob and Gael down the left were matched by some good play by Jermaine on our right who produced some fine crosses. Generally speaking we probed and pressed quite well and continually took the game to Stoke, while they had Akinbiyi as a very lively but sole threat up front. He was aided by the fact that he was allowed to shove whoever he felt like and at times his strength paid dividends. That said Senderos proved that he is indeed a cool unflappable player with great promise.
Van Persie and Akinbiyi looked the classiest players on show but Vieira was bossing midfield. There was the odd storming run from Rob but he was fairly quite before the break. Reyes had a snap shot and Jarrett hoofed a wild shot high into the North Bank. Reyes was tripped on a run, which was met by mindless booing from the Potters. I can only assume they’re cracked. They clearly felt we were getting too many free kicks but it should have been obvious that if we had the ball all the time and they tripped us this was bound to happen. Pennant got Robin in for a shot on the turn but he didn’t get a solid connection. Van Persie was our main threat and he was played in via various combinations of our midfield where Cesc was he usual classy self. It was all Arsenal but with only a minimal amount of clear-cut penetration.
Half time and a lot of scowling Arsenal fans seemed a tad worried that our reserves might prove almost as inept as Man United’s in this third round tie. Arsenal would have to take the second half more seriously if we were to avoid only our second F A Cup defeat in four seasons.
Stoke’s predictable game plan of all back and a big ball up to Akinbiyi was no surprise as Arsenal attacked the North Bank. Both the team and the Gooners were more intense after the break. A great turn and shot by Van Persie, set up by Cesc, was very well saved by Simonsen as Arsenal pressed from the off. Eboue stormed into the box to win a corner. The corner was half-cleared but Kolo stayed up and got in another cross, this from our left, again it was only partially cleared and fell to Reyes who rifled home to equalise in the fiftieth minute. I’m pretty sure he hit it with his right, either way it was drilled home quite emphatically. 1-1 and from this point onwards there looked to be only one winner.
Stoke however didn’t roll over and die despite Arsenal larding on some flash stuff as when a Pires back-heel was crossed in by Jose only to see Robin fire over. Henry, no not Thierry but Karl replaced the not fully fit ex-Gunner John Halls. Van Persie won another corner and hooked it in beautifully. More free kicks came our way as the Stoke defenders were being seriously rattled. The rather porky Taggart was lucky to get away with only a yellow card when he took out the ever-threatening Pennant. Akinbiyi was still working his rocks off and got lucky against Toure with a bounce that won a corner.
Greenacre fired just wide and Gael was required to head one off the line but this was a fairly short spell of pressure from Stoke and as ever we looked seriously threatening on the break. Reyes and Van Persie broke well but Simonsen did well once more. Pennant had Russell fouling him all over the place and won a free kick that Rob took. His ball in was almost met by Senderos who might have opened his goal account. Cesc then had a great shot from range that was not too far away. Akinbiyi, I think it was, hit a shot onto our bar that had Lehmann well beaten.
Possession football was now the order of the day and with Stoke chasing the game when they were allowed to, but Arsenal kept the ball well. Eustace replaced Clarke and Asaba replaced Greenacre, but it made no difference. Although Lehmann was called upon to block a Stoke break from outside his area. A massive, and totally erroneous, cry of handball from the Stoke fans proved just how brilliant their eyesight was, not many fans can see straight through a players back.
Reyes was clearly held in the area but as usual unless one of the underdogs takes out a gun and shoots a player in an F A Cup-tie there would be no penalty. Reyes cut in from the right and let one rip that went not too far over the bar. Jarrett tried his best to foul Pat but only succeeded in injuring himself. Eustace cynically hacked Pennant and got both a mouthful from Jermaine and a yellow card from Barry. Cesc took a whack in the face as one or two Stoke players got a little bitchy as the match neared the final whistle. One corner where few red shirts went forward saw Pennant set Van Persie away for a vicious shot from a very narrow angle that whistled over the bar. Another fast Arsenal break ended with Pennant having his shot saved. At the other end a final fling by Akinbiyi saw him spoil an otherwise good performance by haranguing the lino after he fouled Kolo. A yellow card for dissent followed.
So there’s no need for any Gooners to cancel their Cardiff hotel bookings just yet. Exeter in the 4th. round would be my choice but only because Brighton and Scunthorpe are already out.