Gunners braced for Stoke

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STOKE-ON-TRENT, January 23 – With the fall-out from William Gallas's tackle on Bolton's Mark Davies having barely subsided, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal are bracing themselves for another bruising confrontation with Stoke.The Gunners face Tony Pulis’s side at the Britannia Stadium in the fourth round of the FA Cup, buoyed by their success in knocking Chelsea off the top of the Premier League following the 4-2 victory over Bolton in midweek.

But Arsenal’s achievement in finally reining in the eleven-point deficit that had opened up between themselves and their title rivals at the end of November was overshadowed by Gallas’s ill-judged challenge.

The centre-back escaped punishment during the game but referee Alan Wiley was widely criticised for failing to issue a red card to the defender.

Wenger, though, is anxious to put the matter to rest ahead of the meeting the trip to Stoke where the Frenchman’s side can expect to face another full-on physical test.

"I do not want to develop any paranoia," said Wenger. "But there was too much made about this incident.

"It was a mistimed challenge but without any intention to harm the player. What is more funny is that, when we get kicked, some people say before the game ‘we know how to play Arsenal, we have to kick them’ and nobody in the whole country is upset by that.

"I am always absolutely amazed that people get away with it. When we get kicked and lose the game, the question I get from the press is ‘oh, you did not fancy that’. But nobody is upset or shocked by it. When we are kicked they find that it is absolutely all right."

Wenger’s concerns appear to be vindicated by the comments of Stoke striker Ricardo Fuller who made no attempt to disguise the tactics likely to employed by the home side as they attempt to reach the last 16 of the tournament.

"It couldn’t be a better draw, because we did well against them here last year," said Fuller.

"The Britannia, it’s a like a fortress, and if we do play to our strengths, I don’t think Arsenal can deal with the aggressive play.

"It’s been proved in the past that Chelsea and Bolton have roughed them up and tried to bully them.

"We can also be rough and aggressive when we need to, but we have quality too, and so we can mix it up."

With Arsenal set to enter the most important phase of their league campaign, Wenger will be extremely cautious about fielding some of his key players.

After this meeting the Gunners face a quartet of fixtures – against Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool – that will go a long way towards determining whether they can last the pace in the title race.

Yet while Wenger has no doubt about which is the most important prize at stake, he is also anxious not to suffer a confidence-sapping defeat.

"The Premier League is a priority," he added. "But to win is the first priority and we want to keep the positive momentum by beating Stoke.

"They are a very difficult side to play against. We need a team that is ready to fight and to play over there so that is why we need some experience in the side.

"We will certainly use the squad. It’s fair to see we will put a team that can get a result but won’t harm our chances at Aston Villa."

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