Saturday 10th December 15.00 GMT
2016 truly is the year for change only this time, happily for Arsenal, it looks as if it’s change for the better. The Gunners have successfully negotiated the traditionally bogey month of November to the extent that they are 2nd in the league and have just finished top of their Champions League qualifying group for the first time in a long time. Whether that helps them or not when the draw for the first stage of the knock-out rounds is made remains to be seen but it looks as if the hoodoo has been lifted, for the time being at least.
Strength in the squad
They helped themselves to a hefty win midweek against Basel, demonstrating a strength in depth that hasn’t usually been associated with them. Summer purchase and subsequent bench-warmer, Lucas Perez, got a rare start and duly helped himself to a hat-trick by simple virtue of being in the right place at the right time, an oft-overlooked knack for a a centre forward to have. As impressive as his tally was, he’s unlikely to shift Alexis Sanchez from the starting line-up any time soon, the Chilean being as close to ‘literally on fire’ as it’s possible to be without suffering injury.
On the up but for long?
Stoke have recovered from an awful start to their season and as a result of their endeavors now find themselves sitting in 9th, just two points behind 6th-placed Manchester United. In fact, the form table shows that over the last five games sees Stoke sitting fifth, securing just one point less than Arsenal and the same as Manchester City and Liverpool. Mind you, the same can be said of West Bromwich Albion but more about them later.
Bigger tests ahead
Mark Hughes and his merry bunch of men have nothing like the attacking power of Arsenal but by god, they’re defending stoutly enough at the moment. Just three goals conceded in their last five games (a run which reads W3 D1 L1) is a fine return by anyone’s standards but a closer inspection shows that the opposition faced were all bottom half teams at the time. They’ll be facing a different kettle of fish altogether this Saturday and away from home to boot.
In their favour, Stoke haven’t been beaten away from home since a shellacking at the hands of Crystal Palace nearly three months ago so their form in that regard is quite good. These might just be the cruel crumbs of comfort that can distract the optimist as Arsenal’s home form in the league has been largely excellent. In seasons past, Stoke developed a reputation as a ruiner of Arsenal’s dreams through a combination of obduracy and physicality. However, it’s over two years since they’ve beaten Arsenal in the league and much longer since they’ve done so in London. This column sees no reason to expect anything different here. Arsenal to win at 2/5 from StanJames is the best about at the moment.