Arsenal may now be only a point behind Manchester United but the full cost is yet to be confirmed after injuries to Theo Walcott and Cesc Fábregas on what ended as a frustrating evening for Arsène Wenger's team following the brightest of starts.

Arsenal's next outings are Sunday's Carling Cup final against Birmingham City, an FA Cup fifth-round replay on Wednesday and the visit of Sunderland in the league, before travelling to Barcelona for the return leg of the Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday 8 March.

Wenger, then, will pray that Walcott, who definitely misses the Wembley final, can recover from his ankle sprain quickly and that Fábregas's hamstring does not rule him out of the team to face Birmingham and beyond, though he is a big doubt for Sunday.

There had been scant hint of what was to unfold after Arsenal had taken 90 seconds to illustrate that they were in slick working order, and eight minutes to breach the visiting defence.

Their opening move featured Jack Wilshere marauding forward then linking with Fábregas sweetly on the edge of Stoke's area. The Spaniard delivered a perfect pass to place Walcott in behind the defence and he unloaded a shot that beat Asmir Begovic but smacked off his right-hand post and safely into the goalkeeper's hands.

Then came what proved to be the winner. From a corner on the right, Wilshere's left boot flicked in the delivery and though Ryan Shawcross stuck his head on the ball the possession was moved on to Nicklas Bendtner, who was lurking beyond the far post. He scooped the ball back on to the head of Sébastien Squillaci, who was stationed in front of the goal, and the central defender scored his first league goal since joining last summer.

Fábregas's problem occurred after 14 minutes and he was replaced by Andrey Arshavin, which meant Samir Nasri moving inside from the left to occupy the central position and the Russian taking up the place on the wing.

While this did not cause any break in Arsenal's hold over possession, it did stunt their dynamism, with many attacks becoming static around Stoke's 18-yard line. One move resulted in the passes accumulating and ended with Arshavin attempting a shot that hardly threatened to double the score. This was as encouraging as it got for a side who were then offered a reminder of the effectiveness of more direct play after 33 minutes.

Thus far, John Carew's contribution had been tapping Wilshere's ankles and little else. But a powerful 25-yard volley from City's lone striker forced Wojciech Szczesny to fling himself across goal to save, a clear warning for Arsenal that they had to maintain focus.

Wenger's men closed the half virtually becalmed. Nasri stepped up to pull a free-kick wide but beyond Tony Pulis complaining after Jonathan Walters was booked for fouling Walcott, Fábregas's exit had slowly drained the contest of quality and incident.

At the interval Wenger would surely have warned his team to be more ruthless, Pulis that his Stoke players could still get a goal and a point, or even better.

A year ago the sides had met in the reverse fixture and a Shawcross challenge on Aaron Ramsey left the midfielder with a leg broken and enmity between the two managers: after a quiet first half the emotion now began bubbling.

This started with Carew and Johan Djourou having a tame clash near the corner flag that drew abuse from the home support, something which was only heightened when Peter Walton refused to book the Norwegian.

Djourou played a crucial role in stopping the next Stoke attack. Jermaine Pennant collected possession from a throw, motored down the right flank, then delivered the cross on to Shawcross's head. It was on target but the ball hit Djourou and went wide.

Arsenal had played the opening 15 minutes of the second half incapable of breaking beyond halfway while Robert Huth came close to an equaliser when the Rory Delap slingshot delivered the ball perfectly in to Arsenal's area. But though the Stoke defender rose above a melee of players, his header was steered over.

Now, though, a difficult evening for Wenger and company was about to become worse. Walcott's coming together with Dean Whitehead ended with the Arsenal forward being carried off on a stretcher with an ankle strain. Wenger could not resist a jibe regarding one of Stoke's prime tactics. "I wonder if we should not change the rules because the throw-ins, just after halfway, are in the box," he said.

Pulis said: "In the first 10 minutes we looked like rabbits in the headlights."