Arsenal's Lukas Podolski hits late winner to see off stubborn Stoke

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A scrappy win over Stoke is a powerful testament to a team's character, so this was an important step forward for Arsenal. The mentality of Arsène Wenger's team has continually been questioned this season – even by the manager himself – but here they showed fortitude to prevail against robust foes and keep up their fight for Champions League qualification.

It was fitting that this fixture took place on the opening day of the Six Nations. Clashes between these clubs have almost become derbies such is the depth of the ill feeling generated by Wenger's long-standing objection to Stoke's "rugby style" and, of course, the Ryan Shawcross challenge that left Aaron Ramsey with a broken leg three years ago. As ever, the Stoke fans sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot here, revelling in their club's capacity to ruffle Wenger. But to the Frenchman's joy, his team gave as good as they got physically, ensuring their technical superiority eventually bore fruit, even if the winning goal in the 78th minute came courtesy of a deflected free-kick by the substitute Lukas Podolski.

Wenger was particularly heartened by the performance of Nacho Monreal. The deadline day signing from Málaga looked an accomplished left-back and adapted immediately to the ruggedness of the Premier League, with notable proof coming just before half-time when he inadvertently banged heads with Jonathan Walters and carried on regardless as the Stoke player received six stitches. "There is no greater culture shock than playing Stoke when you have come from Spain," Wenger said. "They have a physical game but we dealt with it."

In deference to Stoke's physicality, Wenger omitted Santi Cazorla from his starting lineup and drafted in Abou Diaby to play alongside Jack Wilshere and the fit-again Mikel Arteta. Arsenal have had a habit this season of starting home games sluggishly, but here they charged out of the blocks, with Theo Walcott making the first incursion in the fifth minute, darting in off the right wing to fire the ball across the face of goal, just beyond the reach of Olivier Giroud. Arsenal monopolised possession, but did not circumvent Stoke's sturdy sentinels again until the 15th minute, when Bacary Sagna and Diaby combined down the right and the injury-prone Frenchman drilled a low cross towards the front post. This time Giroud did well to connect but could not direct his header on target.

Stoke were staunch in defence but offensively unambitious. Still, thanks largely to the dynamism of their five-man midfield they did succeed in curbing the early enthusiasm of Arsenal, who looked like they were sinking back into another stodgy first-half performance. The hosts perked up again in unlikely circumstances as Stoke, normally so vigilant at set pieces, allowed a Wilshere corner to bounce in the six-yard box. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a strong shot but Asmir Begovic saved superbly. Then the goalkeeper produced another fine stop to turn away a header from Laurent Koscielny.

Begovic came to Stoke's rescue again in the 41st minute when Arsenal created their most cutting move of the match, Wilshere piercing the visiting defence with a ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose attempt to curl the ball into the far corner from the left-hand side of the area was foiled by the goalkeeper.

Arsenal remained on top in the second half but inspiration was scarce. As their chances dwindled and the clock ticked towards 70 minutes, Wenger introduced Cazorla and Podolski and the German eventually beat Begovic, who seemed to have a 20-yard free-kick covered until it deflected off Geoff Cameron and rolled into the net. For a moment Arsenal thought the goal would be disallowed as the assistant referee flagged for offside but, after consultation between the officials, the referee Chris Foy correctly allowed it to stand.

Pulis threw on three strikers in search of an equaliser, but Stoke finished without registering a shot on target. Inevitably, though, bad blood crept into the match and even infected the normally mild-mannered Michael Owen, who may have to explain himself to the FA after swinging a fist at Arteta after the Spaniard crunched into him late on.

"It was a poor challenge by Arteta but Michael shouldn't do that," Pulis said. Shawcross was involved in a meaty tackle too, as he and Giroud slid into each other on the halfway line.

"Ryan has a gash on his leg," said Pulis, as Wenger declined to give a view, explaining: "I may not be objective when it comes to Shawcross."

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