ARSENE WENGER insisted he had no choice but to field a weakened side as Arsenal’s FA Cup hopes were crushed by plucky Stoke.
With forthcoming league games against Aston Villa, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool in mind, Wenger opted to field a youthful side fronted by 35-year-old Sol Campbell, who was making his second debut. But, in truth, Wenger’s young Gunners couldn’t compete with Stoke’s physical approach with goals either side of the break from Ricardo Fuller and a third from Dean Whitehead capped a deserved win.
Just 14 months ago, Wenger criticised Stoke’s style in a bitter war of words with Potters chief Tony Pulis, but had no complaints this time as he accepted he side were simply out-muscled. “The game was more physical than technical, and physically they were stronger than us in a very simple game,” he said. “We were exposed to a fight, and some of our players were a bit young and could not cope with it.
“I do not regret the side I put out, I did not have much choice. We had 10 injuries and a very difficult programme coming up. Our selection was simple, take a look at our schedule and you must see we cannot play the same 11 every time. That is for sure. But if you do not win in such situations, it is my fault. I can only stand by the team I selected in the circumstances, we lost but there was not much room for manoeuvre in terms of players available.”
Perhaps Stoke’s biggest weapon is Rory Delap’s trademark long throws, and it took just 70 seconds to undo the Gunners when his first missile into the box found Fuller, who headed home in front of keeper Lukasz Fabianski.
Stoke looked the more likely to score a second but it was the Gunners who pulled level on 42 minutes when Denilson’s shot deflected into the net.
Wenger brought on his big guns as Stoke’s burly approach began to take its toll but, on 78 minutes, Mamady Sidibe ran and crossed from the right for Fuller to thump home.
Whitehead wrapped things up with a third eight minutes later to leave Wenger ruing a missed opportunity in a cup also devoid of Manchester United and Liverpool.