When Arsene Wenger said that he wanted to sample the raw passion of English football, it is a safe bet that the new Arsenal manager did not envisage the kind of close shave his new team experienced in their Coca- Cola Cup tie at the Victoria Ground.
The side who briefly topped the Premiership at the weekend trailed to a goal by the First Division's leading scorer, Mike Sheron, from midway through the first half until 12 minutes from time. Ian Wright then turned sharply on to Paul Merson's pass to set up a replay on 13 November with his 10th goal of the season.
Wenger has a reputation for fostering cultured football. Yet last night, Arsenal softened up Stoke with a series of fouls as cynical as anything from the George Graham era. They incurred three late cautions, and Nigel Winterburn could well have been dismissed but the end will no doubt justify the means.
Remarkably, Stoke had almost caught Arsenal cold in the opening seconds, when Kevin Keen swept past Steve Bould inside the penalty box. The midfielder was going away from goal, however, and his cross was comfortably cleared.
The respective formations meant space was at a premium in and around the centre circle. Keen worked voraciously to provide back-up for Sheron, though in such a tight contest Stoke needed to make better use of any set-pieces which came their way.
They did so with a vengeance in the 25th minute. An Arsenal head cleared Ally Pickering's free-kick as far as the D, where Merson's touch let him down. With Highbury's fabled offside trap conspicuously failing to function, Keen chipped the ball into the danger area. Sheron, stealing between Tony Adams and David Seaman, flicked his 26th goal in 40 starts for Stoke.
Arsenal, for whom Dennis Bergkamp was making a subdued return, ought to have drawn level four minutes later. Winterburn's centre, glanced on by Patrick Vieira, was met by Merson's booming half-volley near the far angle of the six-yard area. The shot was goalbound, only to clip Nigel Worthington and rear over the bar.
The sight of Dixon deep in Stoke territory, heading a Merson pass into the path of David Platt, was a declaration of Arsenal's intent in the early moments of the second half. Although the former England captain's volley ran straight to Carl Muggleton, it was a sign that Arsenal meant to subject his goal to siege.
Those protecting the Stoke keeper were in inspired form. In particular, the pacy Icelander, Larus Sigurdsson, gave Wright scant room to manoeuvre, once relieving the pressure with a marauding run into the Arsenal half. Wright, chasing back, cut him down and was fortunate to avoid a caution.
Arsenal, moreover, could never relax in the face of some clever counter- attacking. Sheron, emulating Ian Rush at his peak by occupying three centre- backs, gave the irrespressible Keen a clear sight of Seaman with a back- heeled pass shortly before the hour. Unfortunately for Stoke, the shot fell below the standard Keen had set.
John Hartson, catching Justin Whittle with an elbow to the face minutes after replacing Bergkamp, finally coaxed Mr Burge into reaching for his yellow card with a quarter of an hour remaining. The Welshman's booking, his eighth of the season, was swiftly followed by that of Vieira, but Arsenal's mounting frustration was relieved by Wright's fine equaliser.
Stoke City (4-5-1): Muggleton; Sigurdsson, Dreyer, Whittle, Worthington; Pickering (McMahon, 89), Kavanagh, Wallace, Forsyth, Keen; Sheron. Substitutes not used: Gayle, M Macari.
Arsenal (5-3-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Merson, Vieira, Platt; Wright, Bergkamp (Hartson, 72). Substitutes not used: Morrow, Lukic (gk).
Referee: K Burge (Tonypondy, Wales).