Delap throws sterile Arsenal off title course

Stoke City 2 Arsenal 1
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The Independent Online

When Stoke City get a throw-in the Britannia Stadium begins a ritual. Hands clap, picking up speed to enhance the anticipation, and as Rory Delap releases the crowd shouts "Ooh". Scary? No. Yet it provided the soundtrack as Arsenal were reduced to rubble by anxiety.

Their goalkeeper would not come for Delap's shells landing in his six-yard box and his central defenders showed a marked reluctance to head the ball. That was why Arsenal succumbed on Saturday. The debate is how much it will shape the rest of their season?

Arsène Wenger's team have already lost three Premier League matches and future opponents will have noted the aerial disarray at the Britannia Stadium. If Manchester United prevail at the Emirates on Saturday, it is going to take a remarkable run for Arsenal to make a convincing charge at the title and, after a week when they succumbed to Stoke and surrendered a two-goal lead in the final minutes against Tottenham Hotspur, it would be a foolhardy gambler to stake money on it.

Ask Arsenal supporters and the list of needs is consistent: a new goalkeeper, a towering centre-half and a tackler in in midfield, but Wenger ignored these requirements when the transfer window was open and it will be January before he can make amends. By then prizes may be beyond reach. Again.

Almost as worrying was Arsenal's inability to craft opportunities against Stoke, a failing that may be intensified by injuries to Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott, who was carried off with his left arm in a sling, or a suspension to Robin van Persie, who surrendered his senses and was sent off for barging Thomas Sorensen.

Creativity hallmarks Wenger's team but on Saturday, against robust tactics, it was absent.

"I don't approve or disapprove," Wenger replied when he was invited to discuss his opponents. "Stoke played the game they wanted and played it very well. At the end of the day they could express their strong points and we couldn't. My biggest worry was that we didn't create a lot. We're not used to playing without making chances and that was very frustrating."

That was also down to Stoke, who tackled and worked ferociously, but also to Delap – transformed from a good player into a match-winning one. Both home goals, scored by Ricardo Fuller and Seyi Olofinjana, arrived via his long throws and they have played a part in seven of 13 League goals.

The throws are becoming aphenomenon, so much so that his manager Tony Pulis was keen to remind everyone of Delap's other qualities. "There are other strengths that Rory possesses, just ask the other members of the team," the Stoke manager said. "Rory has played 450 league games and 350 of them have been in the Premier League so he's not a bad player. He's in the side on merit."

Stoke and Delap (below) have taken nine points from their last 12 and are defying expectation. Unfortunately for Wenger, so are Arsenal.

Goals: Fuller (11) 1-0; Olofinjana (73) 2-0; Clichy (90) 2-1.

Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Griffin, Abdoulaye Faye, Shawcross, Higginbotham; Olofinjana, Diao (Whelan, 78), Amdy Faye, Delap; Sidibe (Kitson, 90), Fuller (Cresswell, 86). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Soares, Wilkinson, Sonko.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna (Walcott, 57), Touré, Silvestre, Clichy; Song, Fabregas, Denilson (Van Persie, 65), Diaby; Bendtner, Adebayor (Vela, 72). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Nasri, Ramsey, Djourou.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Stoke Higginbotham, Sidibe, Cresswell, Delap; Arsenal Adebayor, Fabregas.

Sent off: Van Persie (76).

Man of the match: Delap.

Attendance: 26,704.

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