Arsenal moved to within a point of league-leaders Manchester United with a 1-0 defeat of Stoke on Wednesday, but the victory came at a cost.
Stoke – already regarded as villains in north London after Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s leg was broken in a Ryan Shawcross tackle a year ago – were booed off the field as they tested the Gunners once again, with both Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott injured among a string of strong tackles.
But this time, the Gunners proved they have the appetite for a battle as they won the game through Sebastien Squillaci’s eighth-minute header to keep up the pressure on English Premier League leaders United.
It was the sight of Fabregas limping off with a knee injury after only 14 minutes and Walcott being carried off on a stretcher with an ankle injury in the second half, however, that could have an even bigger impact on Arsenal’s season.
With a Carling Cup Final against Birmingham coming up on Sunday and an away tie at Barcelona in the Champions League to look forward to on March 8, the last thing Arsene Wenger’s team needs now is injuries to their key players.
Even so, they defeated Stoke relatively comfortably to keep up their quest for an unprecedented quadruple of Premier League, FA Cup, Carling Cup and Champions League titles.
The home side could, and should, have gone ahead in the very first minute when Wilshere and Fabegas combined superbly to set up Walcott, but his shot from 10 yards cannoned back off the inside of the far post with Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic beaten.
It did not seem to matter when Arsene Wenger’s side took the lead seven minutes later.
Wilshere’s corner was chested down and chip-volleyed back across goal for defender Squillaci to head home from close range.
But when Fabregas went off injured, Arsenal seemed to lose their momentum and desire – almost conceding an unlikely equaliser when John Carew’s long-distance volley following a break-away move was superbly saved by Gunners shot-stopper Wojciech Szczesny.
Stoke – who had been surprisingly tame in the first half – came out firing in the second, taking a physical approach that had Arsenal’s players on nursing knocks on more than one occasion.
To their credit, the Gunners weathered the storm and really should have extended their lead when Walcott miss-hit a wonderful chance set up by Fabregas’ replacement Andrey Arshavin with 25 minutes to go.
But Stoke’s aggressive tactics eventually took another victim when Dean Whitehead’s challenge, unpunished by referee Peter Walton, left Walcott clutching his ankle in agony.
The injury was so bad the winger had to be carried off on a stretcher and Arsenal’s problems are mounting ahead of Sunday’s Carling Cup Final against another infamously aggressive side in Birmingham City.
But at least they were able to hold out for a crucial league victory that left the home crowd happy and kept the pressure on Manchester United.