Arsenal-Stoke City Preview
Arsene Wenger already thinks the Premier League title will be decided on the final day.
The next five weeks will almost certainly determine whether Arsenal is involved in such a scenario.
The Gunners may have a chance to move atop the table Saturday, but that would require beating Stoke City at Britannia Stadium for the first time in four years.
Arsenal (18-5-4) are second in the tight Premier League race, one point back of first-place Chelsea. They also lead Manchester City by two points and Liverpool by three.
"It looks like the last game could be decisive," Wenger told the team's official website. "Nobody knows. What is for sure, the most consistent team from now on will do it."
Consistency over a difficult stretch will be vital to Arsenal making a serious run at ending their eight-year championship drought. After visiting Stoke (6-9-12), their league schedule over the next five weeks includes visiting Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton while hosting Manchester City. That gruelling stretch also includes an FA Cup quarterfinal meeting with the Toffees and the second leg of their Champions League knockout series with Bayern Munich.
First, the Gunners will need to win at Britannia for just the second time. They're 1-2-3 in all competitions since it opened in 1997, and they've gone 0-2-1 since winning 3-1 on Feb. 27, 2010.
"Everybody has big games, everybody has difficult games, the Premier League is difficult for everybody so let's just focus on our performances," Wenger said. "Let's go for the 11 games with a real desire to do well in every single game, then you have a good chance."
Arsenal certainly looked like contenders in last weekend's 4-1 thumping of relegation-threatened Sunderland. Olivier Giroud netted a brace in the opening 31 minutes before assisting on a goal by Tomas Rosicky before the end of the half.
Giroud has five goals in eight matches, but failed to get on the score sheet in a 3-1 home victory over the Potters on Sept. 22.
Mesut Ozil had two assists in that meeting, and could use a similar effort this time. The star midfielder, who was rested against Sunderland, has just two assists while failing to score in nine straight matches. He's mustered only three shots on target over that stretch.
"Maybe Mesut was not what people thought we were missing but he only needs one opportunity and he gives an assist," defender Laurent Koscielny said. "The difference is there and that's why we're more efficient in front of goal this season. He gave more freedom to other players, too. He is our superstar. Others feel less pressure than before his arrival and we have more confidence."
Stoke may be starting to feel some pressure as they sit 15th in the table, just three points ahead of drop zone. Their struggles include a 1-2-5 stretch in all competitions, losing 1-0 at Manchester City last weekend.
Still, manager Mark Hughes felt positive about the performance.
"We've played a Manchester City side who are the most free-scoring team in the Premier League, and over the two games that we've played them we've restricted them to just one goal," he told the team's official website. "There are lots of positives to be taken, as other teams haven't managed to do that, but ultimately there are no points on the board so we're disappointed."
Peter Crouch is looking to rebound from his poor performance against the Citizens, managing only two shots with none on target. He had a goal in each of the previous two matches, which ended in draws for Stoke.
The forward hasn't scored in the last two meetings with Arsenal after getting two goals in the two prior matches.