The faint trace of a smile played across Arsène Wenger's face as he walked into the press room to dissect the match and his impeccably deadpan line when asked if he had been trying to avoid a replay with his three substitutions – "Yes, I did it" – did not feel like the delivery of an individual suffering any sense of loss.
Even the home side's fans could not conjure much interest in an FA Cup fourth-round tie which their side looked equal to – the turnout was less than 20,000 – so you could hardly blame Wenger for not being too possessed with it either. The four prospective top four sides whom Arsenal now face, starting with Aston Villa on Wednesday, are the preoccupation, though it is a sign of how much Champions League qualification has extinguished all else in the game that Wenger gambled on his place in a tournament when Manchester United and Liverpool no longer stood in his path.
The early 1970s footage of the era when Arsenal twice defeated Stoke in successive thrilling semi-final replays, screened in the stadium before the match, was a paean to the days before Europe butted in, but for a sense of the contrasting perspectives yesterday compare two players. Stoke's Ricardo Fuller carries a tattoo of a lion – and plays like one when the mood takes him, while Wenger's substitute Andrei Arshavin was about to run on to the field wearing a woolly hat until his manager whipped it off his head.
Though an invisible Theo Walcott and Carlos Vela both wore yellow boots, it wasn't so much a spirit of cowardice which saw Arsenal pounded into submission as the far greater spirit and zeal which Tony Pulis has engendered in Stoke. Integral to it was the half dozen or so missiles Rory Delap lobbed into the Arsenal area in the first half alone – though why referees allow Stoke the advantage of towelling the ball down first is a mystery. Martin Atkinson, yesterday's official, presided in December when one of the ballboys who carry the towels refused one to Birmingham's Liam Ridgewell.
Stoke played the physical, pressing game they needed to, though they can provide football, too. Matthew Etherington tormented Francis Coquelin, Wenger's 18-year-old right-back, Glenn Whelan and Dean Whitehead tackled and distributed with vim, Fuller showed why his fleeting drifts into form so frustrate Pulis at times and Mamady Sidibe provided the energy, drifting between midfield and the front line.
Arsenal's absorbing character was Sol Campbell – a chunkier figure than the defenders who lined up alongside him and one who laboured towards the end, the one memorable aspect of Arsenal's largely dispiriting performance. The trials of that run-out at Morecambe for Notts County, being outjumped at corners by a 33-year-old journeyman called Jim Bentley, must have seemed a cakewalk compared with the wet, inhospitable Potteries, yet he looked a lot more at home.
There were his handful of thumping aerial challenges on Sidibe in a first half which left Arsenal looking pole-axed and Campbell's unobtrusive hand gestures to Coquelin, as he guided him into line and position, spoke much for why Wenger has decided he is worth a return to the fold and is not about sentiment. Wenger hardly leapt on to suggestions put to him in the press room that this display reveals Campbell to be a potentially integral part of the campaign to come - "overall, an encouraging performance, yes" – and faster sides than Stoke could punish him at ground level. But it was a display of unexpected aerial strength greater than anything you expect in the usual back-up, Philippe Senderos. Though William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen are generally immovable, Campbell will surely appear again when Senderos leaves on loan.
He was certainly the principal contributor at the back as Wenger's side held back the tide which was breached after just 70 seconds when Cesc Fabregas erred – losing his man, Fuller, who ducked into the header from the first of Delap's missiles. Arsenal equalised, improbably, courtesy of a rather different throw-in of their own. Armand Traoré threw short to Fabregas, whose flick Dean Whithead handled, delivering the free-kick which the Spaniard squared for Denilson to last in, courtesy of a Whitehead deflection, three minutes from the break.
It looked as if Arsenal might make it through the second period, despite several flaps by Lukasz Fabianski, and the triple substitution – prompting Craig Eastmond's move back to the right side of defence with Aaron Ramsey in his place – gave the impression of Wenger's side moving in for the kill. But the perfect challenge Mikaël Silvestre needed to make as Delap had chested down a Whitehead ball and ran on to it in the box left him injured and Stoke struck twice in the space of eight minutes as he laboured.
First Whitehead sent Sidibe running down Stoke's right channel, evading Denilson and crossing before Silvestre could arrive to Fuller who angled a header after the ball had looped over Campbell. Then Campbell allowed Tuncay to knock him off the ball 20 yards out and permitted Etherington the space to cross low for Whitehead to tap home.
Pulis's dreams of a repeat of the early Seventies were punctured by the prospect of visiting Manchester City next, though he grinned at the suggestion that he has the Indian sign over Arsenal at the Britannia.
The date they are back here is 27 February: that European slot will take some fighting for.
Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Sorenson; Huth, Shawcross, Higginbotham, Collins; Delap (Diao, 85), Whitehead, Whelan, Etherington (Pugh, 90); Sidibe; Fuller (Tuncay, 85). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Lawrence, Beattie, Wilkinson.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Fabianski; Coquelin (Ramsey 68) Campbell, Silvestre, Traoré; Eastmond, Denilson, Fabregas; Walcott, (Eduardo, 68), Emmanuel-Thomas (Arshavin 68), Vela. Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Rosicky, Bartley, Frimpong.
Referee: M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Fuller.
Three down, one to go: Fall of the 'big four'
*The last time three of the "big four" failed to advance past the fourth round of the FA Cup was 10 years ago when again only Chelsea made it to round five. Arsenal lost at Leicester and Liverpool fell to Blackburn in the fourth round. Manchester United declined to enter due to the Club World Championship. Chelsea took advantage, going on to win the trophy.
*FA Cup winners odds
13-8 Chelsea, 4-1 Man City, 6-1 Aston Villa, 7-1 Spurs, 12-1 Fulham, 14-1 Birmingham, 25-1 Bolton ......... ......... (Coral)