Stoke City vs. Arsenal Premier League Preview: Cue the Battle of the Britannia

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Stoke City vs. Arsenal Premier League Preview: Cue the Battle of the Britannia
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Arsenal head to the graveyard that is the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City this weekend with "all bets being off" regarding Aaron Ramsey, according to Stoke fanzine, the Oatcake

Stoke chairman Peter Coates has told Gunners fans to lay off Ryan Shawcross and both teams are looking to the match to make a real statement of intent for the rest of the season.

The build up to the crunch March 1 game started almost a week early when the Oatcake, a popular Stoke fanzine, had a dig at Aaron Ramsey by printing an editorial, as per the London Evening Standard, which read:

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Okay, Mr Ramsey... All bets are off.

By running directly over to the travelling Stoke fans pointing, smiling and giving us the "shush" finger you seem more than happy for this stupid situation to continue to be drawn out.

Next time you play at the Britannia Stadium, let's have no whining and trying to take the moral high ground when you get the kind of reception your actions have inevitably guaranteed.

Ramsey suffered a horrific injury on February 27, 2010, in Arsenal's 3-1 win at the Britannia Stadium when Shawcross caught him with an extremely late and, perhaps, overly aggressive tackle.

The double fracture in his lower right leg kept the Caerphilly-born midfielder out of action for nine months. He eventually returned to football in November, the same year, but he was sent on loan to Nottingham Forest in a bid to gently reintroduce him to the game.

It would be fair to say that it took the 23-year-old almost three years to build up confidence in his repaired leg and to return to full fitness.

This season the Welsh international was a revelation up until he picked up a thigh injury in the win over West Ham on December 26. He has scored 15 goals in 31 games in all competitions for club and country, according to Soccerbase and seven assists according to WhoScored.

Ramsey, however, is not expected to play any part in the battle at the Britannia. PhysioRoom.com states that he will be out of contention for Arsene Wenger until the north London Derby against Tottenham Hotspur on March 16 at the very least.

To add fuel to an already white-hot fire, Stoke's chairman Peter Coates has also hit out at Arsenal's fans and specifically Wenger for their treatment of Shawcross in the aftermath. Coates told the Stoke Sentinel:

Paul Thomas/Getty Images

We have got this thing with Arsenal.

We were very disappointed with how the Shawcross incident was treated because we thought there was never any intent whatsoever on Ryan's part.

He was very badly treated over that incident in various quarters and it was wholly unfair on him.

Players get bad injuries all the time in professional football, and in the vast majority of cases there is no blame to be attached, but Ryan seemed to be unfairly singled out over this one, in my opinion.

The Gunners fans' reaction was predictable given their star received a brutal injury and they have booed and jeered Shawcross' every touch in each game since. Coates, however, is directing his comments more towards Wenger, who condemned the defender from up on high. At the time he told the Daily Mail:

Michael Regan/Getty Images

The tackle from Shawcross was horrendous. Spare me how nice he is [in tomorrows newspapers.]

Did you see where the injury is? It is not acceptable.

To lose a player of quality at 19 like Ramsey is hard to accept.

That is not football for me and I refuse to live with it. 

We play football and for someone of Ramsey’s talent to be kicked out the game is beyond words. 

It was not a tackle you could call committed. A three-match ban is ridiculous. The FA have to act.

Once again, the Ramsey-Shawcross tackle would seem to have set the tone for Arsenal's visit to the Britannia. Three years on and, while Arsenal have stayed quiet on the matter, Stoke are claiming the moral high ground for the Gunners taking more than their perceived "pound of flesh."

Cynics would suggest that the Potters are using crude motivational tools to whip their fans into a frenzy ahead of a game that will go a long way in determining each club's immediate Premier League future.

Under Mark Hughes, Stoke have moved away from the direct football employed by the previous regime under Tony Pulis. Hughes has found the going tough at the Britannia and they have only won six of their 27 games this season.

They have slipped perilously towards the relegation zone and are just three points above the dreaded drop zone with Sunderland, in 18th place, looking to drag Stoke into the mire. While there is no doubting that Stoke have become easier on the eye under Hughes, one must admit that they were supremely effective under Pulis.

The Welshman is now in charge of Crystal Palace. Before he took over they had only taken one point from their opening nine games and were staring relegation straight in the face. Now they are just one point behind Stoke and are looked upon as being one of the more defensively sound units in the lower reaches of the league.

Stoke have only won once in their last 10 games compared to Arsenal who have only lost twice in their previous 15. 

Those stats are slightly misleading though, as, according to Soccerbase, the Potters have only lost once at the Britannia Stadium since September and Arsenal have only won once there since 1990. That was in the now infamous game in 2010.

Importantly, Arsenal have only lost once to a team in the bottom half of the table all season and that was in the opening game of the campaign against Aston Villa.

Arsenal, however, will be nowhere near full strength as, at the time of writing, they have 10 players receiving treatment, according to PhysioRoom.com. Their fluent midfield has been key to all that has been good about them this term. They will have to do without the services of Ramsey and Theo Walcott, although both Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil are both expected to return to action.

Mobility is the key to beating Stoke's lumbering midfield. None from Charlie Adam, Glenn Whelan or Wilson Palacios, who are expected to make up the central midfield trio, are exactly what one would call light on their toes.

If Arsenal can break this defensive barrier, they will expose the Potters' fragile backline and go on to win the match. Ozil played a key role in the 3-1 over Stoke back in September with a stunning man of the match performance.

This is a must-win game for Wenger and his team if they harbor title ambitions that edge further away with each passing week.

Stoke also know that this game is ultra important but for reasons at the opposite end of the table. They, like Arsenal, need a performance as much as a result to put their season back on track. Should they get a result from this game, they will more than fancy their chances of staying up.

Over the course of their last 10 games they will face both Chelsea and Spurs. After that, however, each game is winnable. Three points against Arsenal would set them up nicely and improve confidence at the same time.

Lose, however, and those remaining games all take on another outlook completely as they will be against other relegation-threatened teams like Norwich City, Aston Villa, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham.

On the other hand, Arsenal need the win to build momentum as they head into a testing period where they face Everton, Bayern Munich, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester City and then Everton again. 

There are no real standout matches in the Premier League on Matchday 28, but this is exactly the time of the season when the going gets tough and equally when the tough get going.

Stoke and Arsenal both need the points, and the result will help shape the league for the rest of the season.

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