Hard to recover from pounding in Potteries

OUR FA Cup fourth-round tie at fortress Britannia was always going to be a stiff test, no matter what team Arsène put out.

Sadly the only ones seemingly unaware of this fact were the 11 players in blue (that’s never going to sound right for the Gunners), who spent the first half-hour of Sunday’s encounter, like frightened rabbits, caught in the intense glare of the Stoke City headlights.

On Sunday we appeared intimidated by Stoke’s “in yer face” intensity, with the ball becoming like a hot potato, as the Gunners all seemed to want to get rid of it, rather than risk being clattered.

The bods on the box suggested that Fabregas only played because Wilshere fell ill. Although Fab once again showed the sort of fervour that’s had him looking every inch the genuine article, as the Arsenal captain of late, few seemed inclined to follow our skipper’s lead.

Fabianski set the tone, with his timid failure to take responsibility and prevent Fuller scoring from Delap’s opening salvo, even before the first chorus of Delilah had reverberated around the Britannia. With Chelsea and Man United the only teams to succeed on Stoke’s turf this season, there’d have been no shame in this ad hoc Arsenal side losing on Sunday.

Yet this defeat left a bitter taste in the mouths of a 4,500-strong garrison of Gooners who schlepped up to the Potteries and who constituted nearly a quarter of a paltry 19,000 crowd. While so many Arsenal fans had made the effort to turn up, sadly, for the most part our team failed to do likewise. It was left to Denilson to crown a demoralising afternoon in criminal fashion, in the build up to Stoke’s second. The Brazilian’s lack of determination encapsulated a gutless Gunners display, as he gave up on chasing down Sidibe. If Sidibe hadn’t managed to put in a precision cross for Fuller to head home Stoke’s second, you never know what might’ve happened and Denilson might’ve just made it back in time to mop up the bits and pieces. But surely the lad knows you never just stop trying, least of all in the 78th minute of an FA Cup encounter. This wasn’t the first time Traore was caught roaming up the left flank, inviting Stoke to counter after we gifted them possession with our slapdash passing.

There are no excuses for this defeat. We kid ourselves, hoping that such matches matter as much to the players, as they do to us on the terraces, but in these mercenary times, the most we can hope for, is that they want it just a little more than the opposition. Evidently this wasn’t the case at the Britannia, as Stoke’s far superior hunger deservedly won the day.

Having shown so much promise playing with the kids, I’d been looking forward to Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ first-team bow. But where he’s looked imposing, appearing in every position on the park for the youngsters, he seemed far less conspicuous amidst the Pampas of the Potteries. Jay’s proved so versatile that his best position remains undecided. He had few opportunities to impress up front on Sunday, but having waited patiently for his big opportunity, I was disappointed he didn’t grasp it and go that extra mile to put his mark on this match.

Meanwhile, Theo Walcott was so inconspicuous that he might as well have not been there.

The introduction of Arshavin, Eduardo and Ramsey in the 68th minute was intended to inject some energy, just as Stoke were beginning to flag. But the home side didn’t oblige and judging by how reluctant Shava was to remove his Beanie hat, I reckon he would’ve been happier on the bench, tucked up in his blanket.

I suppose I can only fault Sol Campbell’s much-hyped comeback for the fact he ended up on the losing side. But with two aged, infirm centre-backs playing a rare 90 minutes, surely Wenger should’ve had the foresight to keep something in reserve. And it will rub salt in our wound if Cesc’s committed performance leaves him plum-tuckered for tonight’s trip to Villa Park.

I can appreciate Arsène’s need to prioritise. After two defeats in Manchester already this season, there’s some solace in Sunday’s loss potentially saving us from another long drive back from Lancashire, should we have lost to City in the next round. However with the Villa game the prelude to a two-week period which will prove whether the Gunners are worthy challengers, or mere pretenders to the throne, the rotation which has resulted in the sacrifice of the second of four shots at silverware, will only be vindicated if the Wengerboys aren’t seen to be suffering from Sunday’s hangover.

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