Arsenal’s Premier League title ambitions were dealt a huge blow on Saturday, as they slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Stoke City that leaves them four points adrift of leaders Chelsea.
Jonathan Walters’ penalty with 15 minutes remaining was ultimately the difference at the Britannia Stadium; the Ireland international made no mistake after Laurent Koscielny had been adjudged to have handled the ball in the box.
Having struggled for fluency for much of the game, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger threw on a number of substitutes in a bid to avoid defeat, but the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yaya Sanogo were unable to succeed where Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla had failed before them.
Mesut Ozil, initially named only on the substitutes’ bench, was also unable to produce anything in 25 minutes on the pitch—as Stoke held on for a famous victory.
Coupled with Chelsea's 3-1 victory over Fulham and suddenly Arsenal's hopes of finishing the season top of the pack look all the more distant.
Afterwards, Wenger told reporters (per ESPN):
To win a title—when you're expected to perform, you have to perform. It's as simple as that.
It is not a slight worry, it is a massive setback. We didn't create enough and they defended very well. Our performance today wasn't good enough.
We are unlucky to lose this game, but our offensive game was poor.
The Britannia Stadium has often been a difficult place for Arsenal to go and so it proved once again, with the away side—and Giroud in particular—subject to a number of tough challenges throughout the opening 45 minutes.
That is not to say Stoke were playing in an agricultural fashion, however, as they actually outpassed Arsenal in a first half that was low on moments of genuine quality, with Cazorla perhaps the most likely to make something happen.
Arsenal fans might have expected their side to come out for the second half with a renewed purpose, but instead it was Stoke who produced the better chances—with Peter Crouch often the man firing them.
It was the ex-England international’s aerial presence that was causing Arsenal’s defensive problems, with headers from a Charlie Adam free-kick and Marko Arnautovic cross both forcing Wojciech Szczesny into action.
The Pole turned the second of those headers out for a corner and the subsequent delivery was also aimed at Crouch, but Geoff Cameron rifled his first-time volley wide after pouncing on his team-mate’s knockdown.
While those chances were hardly clear-cut they were nevertheless an indication that Stoke were gaining the upper hand in the contest and eventually they were rewarded.
Walters tried to go past Koscielny and the defender's hand clearly touched the ball—although whether it was deliberate, as the rules demand, was harder to be sure of. Nevertheless the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Walters took on the responsibility himself and duly side-footed past Szczesny.
"It was a nice gift from the referee," Wenger fumed afterwards. "Koscielny is one yard away. He has no time. How can he take his hand away? He has no chance.
"It was a generous penalty. I can show you 10 videos of that situation when a penalty isn't given."
Behind with 15 minutes remaining, Wenger threw Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo into the fray as he rolled the dice in search of an equaliser. But, bar a couple of slight openings for Ozil and Giroud, he saw his side frustrated by some resolute defending.
0 - Arsenal did not manage a single shot on target in the second half vs Stoke. Nullified.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 1, 2014
In injury time, however, there was still one final chance for Arsenal to equalise. Sagna did well down the right and cut the ball back perfectly for Sanogo, but the young Frenchman fluffed his lines as he side-footed his shot well over the crossbar from eight yards out.
Holding his head in his hands, Sanogo knew Arsenal’s final chance had gone. It is a sizeable blow to Arsenal’s title hopes—with games against Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City still to come this month, it remains to be seen whether they can recover.
Arsenal's next game is a tricky looking fixture away to Everton next weekend, while Stoke travel to Carrow Road to take on Norwich.