LONDON: Olivier Giroud came off the bench to ensure Arsenal didn’t pay for their profligacy in a 2-0 win over Stoke at the Emirates Stadium yesterday. Theo Walcott had put Arsenal ahead in the first half, but the Gunners’ fans once again spent most of the afternoon frustrated at wasted opportunities before Giroud struck late on to secure their third victory of the season. For all their possession and pretty football, Arsene Wenger’s side have had a problem scoring this season and that was highlighted after just four minutes. Santi Cazorla delivered a delicious ball right onto Alexis Sanchez’s head, but his nod down was tipped against a post by Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland. The rebound fell invitingly to Walcott and his miss from eight yards was ridiculously remiss.
Wenger’s team hit the same post again four minutes later when Sanchez struck a low angled shot following another incisive pass from Francis Coquelin. The Gunners kept pressing and Butland saved well from a dipping Sanchez free kick. Moments later Walcott squandered yet another opportunity when he headed a Hector Bellerin cross over the bar from six yards. So, within 10 minutes the Gunners had scorned five very inviting chances. The ammunition was being provided, but the Gunners were misfiring. With Coquelin the fulcrum in midfield, operating just in front of the back four, Arsenal at least attacked with purpose down both flanks. They even came through French centre-half Laurent Koscielny, who let fly from 35 yards only to be denied by Butland. The Stoke keeper was in a class of his own with dramatic saves, brave blocks and unflappable demeanor.
Under Mark Hughes, Stoke are slowly developing a more sophisticated approach to their game while still retaining something of an edge without the overt physicality deployed under Tony Pulis. Ironically, the opening goal, in the 31st minute, came during a period when Stoke were enjoying their best period of possession and pressing forward. Joselu was caught in possession in the Arsenal half by a superbly executed Coquelin tackle and within a split second Mesut Ozil hit a long ball forward. Walcott controlled, held off a strong challenge from Mark Muniesa and rolled the ball past the advancing Butland for his first club goal of the campaign. Facing an eight consecutive defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates, Stoke had to do more to win the ball and then retain it. They did neither and for long periods Arsenal played around them with ease. It was Coquelin who continued to control the game with his ball-winning, neat passing and sheer presence.
However, Arsenal’s inability to convert chances into goals continued as Aaron Ramsey slipped just as Ozil found him wide open and sliced his shot well wide. Stoke took heart from this and Xherdan Shaqiri forced a fumbled save from Petr Cech and had a couple of other shots blocked by defenders. The Potters replaced Joselu with Stephen Ireland in a bid to spice up the midfield. Referee Jon Moss waved away two penalty appeals from Stoke with Marko Arnautovic being guided off the ball forcibly by Koscielny and Mame Biram Diouf tumbled as a cross was delivered. Walcott had second half chances to add to his tally but his efforts were feeble and Butland was defiant. Even when the ball fell invitingly to Giroud, seconds after his introduction, he shot wide with only the keeper to beat. But the Frenchman made up for it in the dying moments as he headed home from a Cazorla free-kick from six yards. — AFP