Premier League - Stoke hold Arsenal to draw
Following a home defeat to Wigan and a 0-0 draw with Chelsea last weekend, Arsenal's aspirations of securing Champions League qualification suffered a fresh setback when Peter Crouch headed home after only 10 minutes.
Robin van Persie responded within five minutes with his 28th league goal of the season but despite appealing vigorously for a penalty when Yossi Benayoun was brought down in the second half, Arsenal were unable to find a winner and have now won just once in five visits to Stoke.
With Newcastle losing 4-0 at Wigan to sit four points behind Arsenal, the damage inflicted by the draw was lessened, though Tottenham and Chelsea can move to within four and five points of their London rivals respectively with victories on Sunday. All three teams will have a game in hand over Arsenal after the conclusion of the weekend's football.
Benayoun returned to the Arsenal starting XI as a replacement for Theo Walcott, who had been struck down with a hamstring injury in the 0-0 draw with Chelsea last weekend. Arsenal also boasted the newly crowned Footballer of the Year and PFA Player of the Year in their ranks, though Van Persie was without a goal from open play since March 12 - a run of 12 hours.
Games between Stoke and Arsenal are invariably painted as a clash of football cultures - caricatures of Wenger's artists against Pulis's brutes - and this encounter settled into a familiar pattern, with the home side looking to bombard Arsenal from the air and the visitors patiently constructing moves with the ball at their feet.
Rather counter-intuitively for a side seen as vulnerable at the back, Arsenal had actually conceded a league-low five headed goals all season, but Stoke increased that tally after only 10 minutes through Crouch. The striker was involved in the build-up with a fine touch before Stoke played the ball wide to Matthew Etherington, and his cross from the left was met by Crouch with a fine header into the bottom corner.
At 0-0 Arsenal had already failed to convert one excellent chance when Tomas Rosicky found Van Persie at the back post with a glorious cross, only to see Asmir Begovic produce a wonderful save to repel the striker's firm header.
However, the two combined to greater effect just five minutes after Stoke's opener. Benayoun's high pressing allowed Arsenal to win the ball back on the left wing and Rosicky floated in a delicious cross for Van Persie, who this time converted with a side-footed volley from close range as he sauntered onto the ball.
Aaron Ramsey - returning to a stadium that holds desperate memories for him following the serious injury he sustained following a challenge from Ryan Shawcross in February 2010 - also thumped an effort just wide from 20 yards while Benayoun was also denied by a fine save from Begovic as Arsenal threatened sporadically.
However, a lack of quality in the final third from Arsenal, combined with Stoke's reluctance to open up, resulted in a rather sterile end to the first half.
The second half continued in a similar vein, though Van Persie did threaten to score a second when he produced a good header from Bacary Sagna's cross from the right, only for Begovic to save in the centre of his goal.
Stoke, with a mid-table finish assured, were offering little to no threat and Arsenal were not at their free-flowing best. However, they did have a decent claim for a penalty turned down after 75 minutes when Glenn Whelan tripped Benayoun from behind. Shawcross also escaped punishment when blocking a ferocious drive from Vermaelen with his arms, though the offence took place just after the defender had strayed outside of the penalty area.
The arrival of Cameron Jerome after 78 minutes briefly saw Stoke flicker into life in the final third as the forward latched onto a pass from Huth and saw a vicious drive parried away by Szczesny at his near post.
As the seconds ticked away, Vermaelen went close for the visitors with a low free kick but in injury time Arsenal were almost beaten when Sagna was forced to make a fantastic clearance from four yards out with a host of Stoke players lurking to tap the ball in.
Arsenal's performance did not merit a defeat, but nor did it merit a victory as they stumbled again with the end of the season firmly in sight.