Chelsea and Manchester City, then, are the only two clubs left with a realistic chance of winning the double this season. Over the last seven days or so, the press has started to gush about Arsenal again. A decent run of form, including a win at Anfield and a brushing aside of Aston Villa which seemed to indicate that the status quo is still very much correct and in order, had led to acres of coverage being given to the Premier League’s equivalent of the renaissance artists. This run hadn’t, however, been without its hiccups.
Their draw against Everton two weeks ago was a match in which they were very fortunate to get a point, their win at West Ham United in the last round of the FA Cup was a stodgy performance that was reliant upon two goals in five minutes and even the coming from behind against Bolton Wanderers that prompted so many of the cooing noises was a match in which they fell two goals behind against a team that is fighting for its Premier League life. An under strength Arsenal team playing a Stoke City team that is a solid Premier League team was always likely to be a very difficult match for them.
The match is also a return to Arsenal for one of the more divisive Premier League players of recent years: Sol Campbell. Sulzeer has had an eventful time of it since leaving the club in 2006. At Portsmouth, he helped them to their first major trophy since 1950 and his spell at Notts County lasted just one matches and provided the first tangible evidence that the summer take-over of the club wasn’t all that it seemed. His return to Arsenal was set to be the start of his glorious return to the summit of English football, to culminate with a final World Cup appearance for the national team in South Africa this summer.
It too seventy seconds for this fantasy scenario to start to unwind. A long throw from Rory Delap caught the Arsenal defence completely cold, reserve goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski found himself caught in two minds and Ricardo Fuller sneaked in front of him and headed in at the near post. In a disjointed first half, the visitors frequently looked overawed by a Stoke team that pushed for every ball, used their possession intelligently and stretched an inexperienced Arsenal defence all over the place, using the full width of the pitch in the search of a second goal. Three minutes from half-time, however, Arsenal equalised when a tame shot from Denilson was deflected past Sorenson and into the corner of the net.
Arsenal could have gone on and win the match from there. Early in the second half, Cesc Fabregas shot from twenty yards which Sorenson had to tip over the crossbar, but Stoke manage to weather this early storm and in the closing stages of the match started to pull clear. With thirteen minutes left to play, Sidibe made space on the right hand side and crossed. Fuller got between the two central defenders and smartly directed his header back across Fabianski to give them the lead. With five minutes to played wrapped things up once and for all when Matthew Etherington got away with the ball on the left hand side and sent over a low cross that Dean Whitehead tapped in from close range.
Reaction to the result has been predictable. As soon as one of the biggest clubs is knocked out of the FA Cup, it never mattered in the first place. Arsene Wenger – who has won the trophy on four occasions – may or may not agree but, for this season, Arsenal’s eggs are all in the baskets of the Champions League and the Premier League. For all of the luxuriant words offered about them over the last few days, we will know much more about how the end of their season is going to turn out in about four weeks’ time. Their upcoming matches are against Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool before their next Champions League match against Porto.
They may go onto win the Premier League this year and they may even go on to win the Champions League, but there was little on display today to suggest that this would happen. It is very easy to say, “Yeah, well, the FA Cup doesn’t matter anyway” but, without a major trophy since 2005, are Arsenal in a position to be choosy about which trophies they win? The other problem that Arsenal seem to have is a lack of strength in depth. Sol Campbell stepped into their defence this afternoon and frequently looked off the pace and – unsurprisingly – lacking in match practice. Considering that he will be thirty-six years of age, will he be able to get “it” back?
The FA Cup, then, progresses to the Fifth Round without Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur face a tricky trip to Elland Road for their replay against Leeds United. Some might say that Chelsea might have a clear run on the trophy now, but the capacity of the competition this season to surprise would seem to indicate that there are no guarantees of who will be taking the pitch at Wembley in May.