Stoke succumb to Van Persie volley

Arsenal 2 Stoke City 1
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The Independent Football

In the end Samson didn't succumb to Delilah. But it was almost a close shave. The 5,000 Stoke City fans in the Clock End belted out the old Tom Jones standard - which has become their theme tune - and watched as their side had a goal questionably disallowed, took the lead, then had a shot cleared off the line and struck the crossbar. And all this against an almost full-strength Arsenal side.

Fine second-half goals by the returning Jose Antonio Reyes and his equally youthful strike partner, Robin van Persie, won it for the Premiership champions, who showed admirable resolve, and meant that their manager, Arsène Wenger, is still to lose to lower-league opposition in this competition. He also remains on course to emulate his remarkable record of finals and semi-finals.

Indeed, Wenger treated the opposition with greater respect than either Chelsea or Manchester United had done in their home ties. But then Stoke, struggling but mid-table in the Championship, are a more rugged proposition. They may not score many goals but they don't concede that many either.

The first-half was almost a copy of that old training ground routine in which one side attacks, the other defends and then when it breaks down they start again from half-way. Despite having four efforts on goal, Van Persie did not come close in that period - although Jermaine Pennant forced a smart block from the impressive Steve Simonsen.

In saying that, Stoke had the best opportunities of the half, and in Ade Akinbiyi they possessed a one-man strike-force who inflicted increasing terror on Arsenal's callow defence in which the 21-year-old Emmanuel Eboué made his debut and the 19-year-old Philippe Senderos appeared like he was making his.

"It looks like this boy enjoys a fight," smiled Wenger in admiration of Akinbiyi's power and speed which constantly challenged the fleet-footed Kolo Touré. Indeed Akinbiyi, that £8m misfit who was on schoolboy forms at Arsenal, looked like a man on a mission and the way he easily outmuscled Senderos on 10 minutes, before forcing Jens Lehmann to tip his shot around the post, set the tone.

Lehmann had been recalled, but Wenger made it clear he was now regarded as the number two goalkeeper. The 35-year-old German did little to advance his cause and appeared at fault for Stoke's goal in first-half injury-time as he came for Chris Greenacre's inswinging cross, hesitated, and Akinbiyi beat Touré in the air. Lehmann, who was later absolved of blame by Wenger, scooped out the header but only into the path of Wayne Thomas who, to his delirious reaction, thumped in his third goal of the season and Stoke's first in five matches.

Before that Akinbiyi had gone shoulder-to-shoulder with Senderos, lifting the ball over Lehmann and into the net. But it was disallowed by the referee, Neale Barry. "I don't honestly think it was a foul," said the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, who was rightly delighted by his team's performance. "We thought it was a fair challenge." Wenger agreed although he pointed out that Senderos had stopped before Akinbiyi's shot. "I have seen it again and there was not a lot wrong in there," he said with admirable candour.

Arsenal did not allow the set-back of going behind to panic them and, within five minutes of the restart, drew level. Thomas only half-cleared Touré's cross and a first-time shot by Reyes thudded past Simonsen.

Stoke then had two moments to ponder. First, from a corner, Chris Greenacre flicked the ball goalwards only for Gaël Clichy to pop up and head off the line and then Akinbiyi turned Touré and chipped a shot from the edge of the area that beat Lehmann but struck the bar. Before that Simonsen had saved, brilliantly and one-handed, from Van Persie as the synchronicity returned to Arsenal's strike force.

The goalkeeper blocked another precise shot from the Dutchman, and one from Pennant, before Marcus Hall struck his clearance against Reyes who cut the ball back to Pennant. His cross was met by Van Persie who, despite having his back to goal, managed to arch and volley with the outside of his left foot. It was an accomplished winning strike and it sapped Stoke's strength.

Goals: Thomas (45) 0-1; Reyes (50) 1-1; Van Persie (69) 2-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Eboué (Hoyte, 70), Senderos, Touré, Clichy; Pennant, Vieira, Fabregas, Pires; Reyes, Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Cygan, Hoyte, Larsson, Owusu-Abeyie.

Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Simonsen; Buxton, Taggart, Thomas, Hall; Halls (Henry, 52), Russell, Jarrett, Clarke (Eustace, 77); Greenacre (Asaba, 77); Akinbiyi. Substitutes not used: De Goey (gk), Noel-Williams.

Referee: N Barry (Lincolnshire).

Booked: Arsenal Vieira. Stoke Taggart, Eustace, Akinbiyi.

Man of the match: Akinbiyi.

Attendance: 36,579.