Faltering Arsenal's Title Bid Suffers Huge Blow at Stoke

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Faltering Arsenal's Title Bid Suffers Huge Blow at Stoke
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Arsenal have fallen to a familiar foe. Stoke have once again been the scourge of Arsene Wenger and dealt a serious blow to his ambitions of winning the league title. The Gunners’ hopes of lifting the Premier League trophy are now hanging by a thread after a 1-0 defeat at Stoke.

There will be a sense of injustice among the Arsenal fans about the result. The penalty which decided the game seemed extremely harsh. It was ostensibly awarded for a handball by Laurent Koscielny, although on second viewing the Frenchman didn’t seem to deliberately move his arm towards the ball.

Throughout the match, Stoke dished out rough treatment of Arsenal’s players without significant reprimand. Olivier Giroud was a particular target and took a real buffering from Arsenal nemesis Ryan Shawcross.

However, the referee is not entirely to blame. Arsenal did not produce a performance worthy of winning the game. Stoke defended stoutly, but their back four is hardly impenetrable; this was their first clean sheet in 14 matches. Arsenal’s title rivals, Liverpool, managed to score five at the Britannia. By contrast, the Gunners mustered just two shots on target in the entire game.

Arsenal’s attacking game was one-paced and lacking in purpose. The absence of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey is beginning to take its toll. Wenger’s team lack players with the ability and willingness to sprint in behind Giroud, and it makes their patient approach play worryingly predictable.

In an attempt to offer more goal-threat, Wenger retained Lukas Podolski from the team that beat Sunderland last week. However, the German was anonymous. When a presentable opportunity did fall to him towards the end of the first half, he blazed it over the bar.

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Not even the introduction of a rested and recharged Mesut Ozil could revitalise Arsenal. Stoke’s disciplined defending ensured he made minimal impact after being brought on as a substitute.

Even without the penalty being awarded, a draw would have been a disappointing result for Arsenal. With Chelsea winning comfortably at Fulham, a gap has opened up at the summit of the Premier League.

Arsenal have won just two of their last six Premier League games. For a side with ambitions of winning the title, that isn’t good enough.

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What’s most worrying for Arsenal fans is that things aren’t likely to get any easier. Arsenal’s next four league fixtures see them face Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton in quick succession. 

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It could go either way, of course. If Arsenal can emerge from that treacherous-looking stretch with 12 points, the title will be within reach once again. However, Arsenal have already failed to beat Chelsea, City and Everton this season. Their record against their biggest rivals remains questionable. If Arsenal pick up poor results in those games, they could find themselves embroiled in a painfully familiar battle for fourth spot.

The margin for error has eroded. Arsenal’s season has been characterised by the impressive manner in which they have responded to set-backs. The Gunners will need to respond to this latest blow with their best period of the season.

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.

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