Premier League - Soft-centred Arsenal humbled at Stoke

Sun, 08 May 16:01:00 2011

Arsenal's slim Premier League title hopes were ended by a 3-1 defeat to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium.

Match Highlights: Stoke 3

Kenwyne Jones opened the scoring for the Potters on 28 minutes before former Arsenal player Jermaine Pennant doubled the home side's lead four minutes before half-time.

Robin van Persie pulled one back for the Gunners on 81 minutes, only for Jon Walters to restore Stoke's two-goal cushion just moments later.

Defeat for the Gunners means that, following Manchester United's 2-1 win over Chelsea later on Sunday, they are now nine points behind the leaders with just two matches of the season remaining. Stoke secured the ideal result to boost confidence ahead of their FA Cup final meeting with Manchester City next Saturday, although they now have concerns over the fitness of defender Robert Huth.

The build-up to the match was filled with animosity as the Gunners returned to the ground where Aaron Ramsey had his leg broken by Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross last season, an incident which prompted plenty of criticism from Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger for his opposite number Tony Pulis and his players' perceived 'rugby tactics'.

The Gunners got off to a bright start but, Robin van Persie's early effort scooped over the bar aside, were largely kept at bay.

Stoke have scored the highest proportion of goals from set pieces in the league this season, while Arsenal have conceded the most, so it was perhaps no surprise that the opening goal came via that route.

Andrei Arshavin brought down Pennant near the corner flag as the half-hour mark approached, and the poor defending from the resulting free-kick allowed the unmarked Jones to finish from inside the six-yard box for his fifth goal in his last six games.

Arsenal continued to see a lot more of the ball but without troubling Asmir Begovic's goal, and they found themselves 2-0 down just before the break courtesy of a different kind of poor defending.

Pennant picked the ball up in midfield and ran at the back four. A gap inexplicably appeared in front of him and he took the chance to go for a strike from range which deflected off the outstretched leg of Johan Djourou and looped over goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Stoke were enjoying getting one over on their apparent nemesis, but their minds were drawn towards next week's trip to Wembley when, after sending his header from a corner wide soon after the restart, defender Robert Huth limped off with a knee injury that may yet see him miss that game.

Arsene Wenger had brought on strikers Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh at half-time, but both men showed why they not scored a Premier League goal between them in 2011 as they each spurned decent chances soon after coming on.

Arsenal's frustration was epitomised by Jack Wilshere, who earned a booking for a rash tackle on Pennant with 20 minutes remaining. Pennant also saw a yellow card for his part in the pitch that ensued. Andy Wilkinson, who retaliated on Pennant's behalf with a lunge on Wilshere, escaped censure.

Van Persie was by far Arsenal's best performer, abut he should have reduced the deficit when played through one-on-one inside the box, only to have his shot blocked by Begovic.

The Dutch striker finally made the breakthrough with a chance he created himself, forcing his way into the box before drilling a low shot under the keeper for his 20th goal of 2011.

Moments later, however, Stoke were two goals to the good again when another defensive lapse helped Walters on to the scoresheet when Djourou cleared the ball right into the forward's path and he finished past Szczesny.

It summed up Arsenal neatly: Van Persie's ruthlessness in front of goal outweighed by their soft centre, and as such it was a fitting way for their title hopes to be extinguished.

Tony Mabert / Eurosport

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