Arsenal last night moved to within a point of Manchester United at the head of the Premier League, but suffered injuries to Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott four days before the Carling Cup final against Birmingham City. Walcott, who went off on a stretcher after twisting his ankle, will definitely miss the game while Fabregas's hamstring strain will have to be assessed today, along with Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny, both of whom were absent here.
No foul was given on either occasion, but Arsenal supporters were not prepared to give big, bad Stoke City, their team's polar opposites in style and approach, the benefit of any doubt. "One-nil to the football team" was the chant as a fractious evening wore on. That goal was headed in by the French defender Sébastien Squillaci in the opening 10 minutes, when Stoke were under siege and seemed likely to lose their remarkable record of not having conceded more than two goals in any League match this season – uniquely among the 92 clubs. Yet they stayed in contention by fair means and occasionally foul for long enough to cause concern when five added minutes were signalled and much relief at the final whistle.
Arsène Wenger, who has crossed verbal swords with Stoke's Tony Pulis in the past, declined to renew battle, preferring to raise his own team for winning a game he felt they could have lost a year or two ago. "We were intelligent, calm, patient and resilient," he said in listing many of the qualities he admires in a football team. "It's very difficult to defend [against Stoke] and I'm proud we didn't concede a goal. We have matured and can win a game with brain when we are less creative. That's what's changed."
The improvement, he added, will put some pressure on United as they play a game in hand at Wigan on Saturday and then travel to Chelsea next Tuesday. Achieving the right balance between resting players and winning matches has tested as experienced and wily a manager as Wenger, who says that he has never previously been involved in four competitions at this stage of the season. After Sunday's drawn FA Cup tie against Leyton Orient added to the fixture burden, he brought back half a dozen of his more established players, only to lose his captain within quarter of an hour.
Fabregas pulled up with nobody near him and his departure cost Arsenal much of their early fluency. They had already threatened three times – Walcott striking the inside of a post – before scoring in the eighth minute. From a corner on the right that Robert Huth could only head backwards across goal, Nicklas Bendtner, not marked closely enough, controlled the ball and returned it for Squillaci, also unattended, to head in his first domestic goal.
Although a rout looked on the cards, Arsenal created only one more opportunity before the interval, when Samir Nasri, who had moved into the centre after the captain's injury, curled a free-kick wide.
Stoke, whose unpopularity also stemmed from the incident almost a year ago in which Aaron Ramsay had his leg broken in a challenge by Ryan Shawcross, did what they do best and John Carew brought an excellent save from Woiciech Szczesny.
Stoke's manager Pulis was furious when Jon Walters received the game's first yellow card for holding back Walcott just after Squillaci had escaped without one for clattering into Dean Whitehead. But the crowd's derision was by that stage underpinned by a certain frustration at the way their side's early superiority was being threatened. The point was emphasised in the quarter of an hour after half-time. First Jermaine Pennant, once the youngest debutant in Arsenal's history, went round the outside of their defence to cross for Shawcross, whose header was deflected for a corner by Johan Djourou. Ten minutes later, Huth arrived in the penalty area to head one of Rory Delap's long throws over the bar.
Starting a run of five games in 15 days, Arsenal suffered their second injury of the night when Walcott appeared to twist his ankle under a challenge from Whitehead and had to be replaced by Denilson. He had just missed a good opportunity, miscuing after excellent work on the by-line from the other substitute, Andrei Arshavin. So tension lingered until the end, with Pennant clipping a free-kick just wide.
"In the first 10 minutes, the game could have been out of sight," Pulis said. "We looked like rabbits in headlights, but gradually we got back into it and after the second half we're desperately disappointed not to have taken something from the game."
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Song, Wilshere; Walcott (Denilson, 71), Fabregas (Arshavin, 14), Nasri; Bendtner (Chamakh, 80). Substitutes not used Almunia (gk), Rosicky, Eboué, Gibbs.
Stoke City (4-5-1): Begovic; Wilson (Wilkinson, 87), Huth, Shawcross, Pugh; Pennant, Whitehead, Delap, Whelan, Walters (Fuller, 78); Carew. Substitutes not used Sorensen (gk), Higginbotham, Collins, Jones, Diao.
Referee P Walton (Northants).