Arsenal welcome back Germany international Mesut Özil to the squad for the visit to relegation candidates Stoke City. The £42.4 million club-record signing from Real Madrid last featured for the Gunners in the 2-0 home defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League last week. However, his poor run of form in the build up to the clash followed by a missed penalty against the reigning European champions saw boss Arsène Wenger leave the midfielder out of last weekend’s 4-1 victory over Sunderland. Although Wenger claimed Özil was suffering from a dead leg, it had been suggested the player would not have featured anyway. The German’s recent form is in stark contrast to the way he started the season when many tipped him for the PFA Player of the Year award.
The Gunners currently sit a point off leaders Chelsea in the Premier League but have played a game more than Manchester City who are two points behind in 3rd. Wenger said in his pre-match press conference on Thursday that Liverpool, who are in 4th spot, have an advantage over the other title hopefuls because the Merseysiders are not involved in any other competitions. City play Sunderland in the League Cup Final on Sunday and are also still involved in the FA Cup and Champions League, even though they have a mountain to climb to reverse Barcelona’s 2-0 first-leg lead. Arsenal are still in the Champions League, also with a 2-0 deficit to overcome, and the FA Cup. Chelsea are also in the former.
In contrast, Stoke City have the small matter of a relegation battle to deal with. Although they are currently in 15th spot, The Potters are only three points clear of the drop zone. Nevertheless, the good news for the home side is Mark Hughes should welcome back defender Robert Huth, who has been on the sidelines since undergoing knee surgery in November. One of Huth’s key roles will be to stifle the creativity of what Wenger described as a rejuvenated Özil who Arsenal will welcome back.
Hughes will also go into the game buoyed by the fact that Stoke have enjoyed a good home record against Arsenal over the years. The Gunners have only won once at the Britannia Stadium in the Premier League, which was back in 2010 when Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey broke his leg. Apart from the disappointing results at the Britannia, Wenger has often left the ground seething at what he calls Stoke’s over-physical style of play, which has been used over the years to break up Arsenal’s more fluid style. However, under Hughes Stoke have tried to change to more of a passing style that was absent under his predecessor Tony Pulis. Although it has proved difficult for Stoke to not revert to type at times this season, the general consensus is that Hughes has got Stoke playing a slightly more attractive game. Ironically, Crystal Palace boss Pulis has been praised for more making his side more pleasing on the eye than under previous manager, Ian Holloway.
Wenger will know that his side cannot afford to come back to London without at least gaining a point on the road, while Stoke will be fighting for their lives in a league table that has arguably the closest title race and relegation scrap in years. Now that Arsenal are ready to welcome Özil back into the fray, the stage is set for a pulsating encounter.
By Robert Shepherd