Arsenal avalanche buries Stoke

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 5 Stoke City 2

By the end of November Arsene Wenger should have a much clearer idea as to whether Arsenal are equipped to challenge on more than one front. By virtue of overwhelming Stoke after giving them a goal start they inserted a Coca-Cola Cup tie at Liverpool into a schedule which already sends them to Manchester United and Newcastle either side of a derby with Tottenham.

The revitalised Ian Wright led the spree in last night's third-round replay, scoring twice to take his tally this season to 15, as well as having a hand in another two goals. He has found the net seven times in Wenger's six games as manager, prompting the Frenchman to hail him as "the most efficient goalscorer I've ever seen".

Remarkably, Stoke were the better side in a mundane first half. By the end, however, they were left with only the meagre consolation of scoring first and last through Mike Sheron, which at least brought the First Division's leading marksman level with Wright.

Indeed, it took a splendid finish by Sheron in the 35th minute to rouse Wenger's team from their torpor. Until he pounced, seizing on Patrick Vieira's attempted back-pass after a counter-attack instigated by Graham Kavanagh, neither Arsenal nor their supporters appeared enthused by the occasion.

Carl Muggleton had enjoyed a stress-free evening in Stoke's goal up to that point. But the retaliation was ruthless, red shirts besieging his penalty area to the extent that Mark Devlin was clearly unnerved. The young midfielder, filling in at left-back, brought down Dennis Bergkamp, allowing Wright to equalise from the spot four minutes before half-time.

Stoke needed to subdue the crowd by taking the sting out of Arsenal's attacks early in the second half. Instead, they immediately fell behind to a goal of such simplicity that Wenger must have wondered how his players had made such hard work of the opening 40 minutes.

This time Wright was the provider. Racing on to Martin Keown's long pass down the right flank, he crossed deep to the far post where David Platt arrived to chest the ball home. If Lou Macari, the Stoke manager, wondered where his defence were, it was a question Arsenal suddenly began to pose with almost every assault.

Paul Merson, who had scooped the ball off Richard Forsyth's foot three yards out when the game was goalless, curled in the 64th-minute corner from which a criminally unmarked Wright headed the third.

When a centre by Gerry McMahon deflected off Platt before clipping Arsenal's crossbar, Stoke seemed to sense that this was not their night. An 18-yard drive of slide-rule precision by Bergkamp, following another pass by Wright, confirmed the feeling with 22 minutes remaining.

Lee Dixon set up the fifth against his former club seven minutes later, after a strong run and low cross which Muggleton could only push out as far as Merson. Even though Sheron cleverly converted Mike Macari's pass in the final seconds, one-nil down, five-two up is the kind of variation on an old theme that Arsenal supporters will settle for as the month progresses.

Arsenal (5-3-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Merson, Vieira (Morrow, 78), Platt; Wright, Bergkamp (Hartson, 74). Substitute not used: Lukic (gk).

Stoke City (4-5-1): Muggleton; Pickering (Griffin, 80), Sigurdsson, Whittle, Devlin; McMahon (M Macari, 80), Wallace, Kavanagh, Forsyth, Keen (Carruthers, 74); Sheron.

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

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