Big win for Arsenal - but Walcott injury a blow
Victory puts Arsenal one point behind Man Utd – but Fabregas and Walcott could be out of Carling Cup final
Arsenal 1 Stoke City 0. A goal from centre-back Sebastien Squillaci moved Arsenal to within one point of Premier League leaders Manchester United yesterday, but the victory came at a heavy price for the Gunners. Theo Walcott will definitely miss Sunday's Carling Cup final against Birmingham and Cesc Fabregas is in doubt after limping off early in the first half.
"Walcott has an ankle sprain and is out on Sunday. For how long I cannot tell you," said Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. "Fabregas has a hamstring problem. We will assess that tomorrow. It is impossible to say how serious it is. He was very upset. I am as well. But it is not his fault or mine. It is part of sport."
By the time Fabregas departed, replaced by Andrey Arshavin, Arsenal were already 1-0 up after Squillaci headed home a cross from Nicklas Bendtner on eight minutes for his first league goal for the Gunners.
It was just reward for the home side after a blistering start that saw Walcott rattle the inside of the post within 60 seconds.
Yet the departure of Fabregas disrupted Arsenal's rhythm and they never looked like extending their lead during a first half in which Stoke seemed content to stand off and watch the Gunners.
That all changed in the second-half with Stoke emerging in a more combative mood. In this fixture last season Stoke's Ryan Shawcross broke the leg of Aaron Ramsey with a wild challenge, and though Dean Whitehead's tackle on Walcott was less ferocious, it was heavy enough to leave the young striker writhing in agony.
Wenger refused to criticise Whitehead later, saying both sides had been "committed" to the game. Instead he lavished praise on his squad after a crucial win that lifts the Gunners seven points clear of third place Manchester City in the Premier League.
"The game was massive for us and the three points were very important," he said. "We got them through focus, discipline and intelligence more than through flair tonight. Stoke are one of the most difficult teams to play against in this division. They can go anywhere and get a result and they defended very intelligently tonight."
Initial reports from the Arsenal medical staff indicated Fabregas had been substituted as a precaution after feeling his hamstring tighten, and late on Wednesday evening the Spaniard tweeted: "I don't know if I'll make Sunday [against Birmingham] or not but all I know is that from this moment to Sunday I won't sleep if it's necessary. I've waited too long to captain a final with Arsenal & I won't give up until the last second."