Sanchez is Arsenal's missing link, says Richard Buxton
Arsenal can't wait for return of Chilean to spur title charge
Sitting at the summit once again, Arsenal are miraculously still winning the war.
But, as Arsene Wenger stormed into battle against Stoke City yesterday morning (Singapore time), what was once a chink in their armour had subsequently decayed into a gaping hole.
History remains on their side - since the English Premier League's inception, 15 of its 23 previous title winners have also done so from that same position of strength after 22 games played.
Devoid of Alexis Sanchez, however, the Gunners have stuttered.
Previously hailed as this season's champions-elect in an ever-changing EPL landscape, the Gunners have lacked the authority and swagger that had led to that somewhat premature coronation.
Resolute though they proved at the Britannia Stadium, taking away a rare and vital point from this most unhappy of hunting grounds, Arsenal have been running on empty in the two months since the Chilean limped out against Norwich City.
Never before would Wenger have envisaged welcoming Sunday's visit of a rejuvenated Chelsea with an increased anticipation.
Such has been the paucity of his side without Sanchez, since the end of November, his expected return cannot come around quick enough.
With a solitary win from their previous four outings and similarly largely unconvincing displays at the Emirates Stadium during his lay-off, Arsenal desperately need the former Barcelona winger to reprise his lead role in their starring cast and kick-start their planned title assault.
Their only saving grace has been Leicester City's own recent shortcomings.
That may last longer than Claudio Ranieri's side have anticipated but, with both Manchester City and arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur now firmly hot on their heels, Sanchez's return is perfectly timed.
He could have conceivably hit the comeback trail against Stoke, only for Wenger to deem it a gamble that was not worth taking.
That understandable caution may ultimately prove costly after dropping a further two points to complement those carelessly shorn at Anfield last week.
In Sanchez's absence, Mesut Oezil has maintained Arsenal's title push virtually single-handed.
The German's own unavailability with a foot complaint laid bare the lack of Plan B in Wenger's game plan. Pace attempted to supplement the shortfall without Oezil's creativity.
Wenger believes that there would be no team in world football that could fail to miss his in-form playmaker.
After creating a league-high of 87 chances all season, who wouldn't?
Those charged with attempting to remedy the deficit ultimately failed.
Though vastly improved, the likes of Theo Walcott, withdrawn following an ineffectual 72 minutes, proved to be pale imitations as they tried, and failed, to compensate for the loss of that level of ability.
Hindsight suggests it may have been a blessing in disguise that he was not left wanting for a successive outing.
Slowly but surely, Arsenal's EPL opponents are gradually sussing out that the best way to stop Oezil is simply to stifle him.
Liverpool's doubling up on the World Cup winner limited him to a bit-part performance.
For Wenger, to fall afoul of such tactics once is human; doing so again would have been careless, particularly against a defensively robust prospect such as Mark Hughes' side.
Ironically, it was in defence where the Arsenal manager found the most solace.
Where once Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina offered inconsistency and false hope, Petr Cech has restored stability and belief.
Stoke custodian Jack Butland stole the headlines for his own goalkeeping heroics, but it was his opposite number, 11 years his senior, who encapsulated the adage that class is permanent.
Repelling the Potters to record his 10th clean sheet of the current campaign, the £10 million ($20.5m) paid out to Chelsea last summer appears increasingly to be small change.
He has already repaid that figure back in spades with the points salvaged across the season.
Combined with the returns of Sanchez and Oezil to Wenger's armoury, it promises to see Arsenal preserve their status as rightful EPL leaders rather than merely level-pegging.
He was at 95 per cent but, with a muscular problem, i didn’t want to take a gamble because if he has a setback now, it’ll three months.
— Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on leaving Alexis Sanchez out against Stoke
BY THE NUMBERS
After the goalless draw with Arsenal, Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland (above) has recorded 81 saves this season, the most in the Premier League. His Gunners counterpart Petr Cech, meanwhile, has raked up his 10th clean sheet of the current campaign.
Wenger hails Gunners' fighting spirit
Arsene Wenger felt Stoke turned the Britannia Stadium into a battleground yesterday morning (Singapore time) as his Arsenal side claimed the point they needed to return to the Premier League summit.
The Gunners were unable to add to their solitary Premier League win in Staffordshire, but a 0-0 draw in which goalkeepers Jack Butland and Petr Cech both starred moved them back up above Leicester and Manchester City.
Arsenal's rivalry with Stoke emerged from their early duels with Tony Pulis' tough teams and, while successor Mark Hughes has implemented a more possession-based system in his time with the Potters, Wenger (above) thought their performance was typical of the challenges they used to face.
The Frenchman was also critical of the Stoke supporters who jeered Aaron Ramsey and chanted about the midfielder walking "with a limp", six years after Potters skipper Ryan Shawcross broke his leg at the same venue.
"Overall, it was a battle, an old-fashioned Stoke battle," Wenger said. "They made the game very physical, the crowd were up for it, the players were up for it.
"They went for a very direct game and we had to show physical response, solidarity, fighting spirit, togetherness - which is what we did.
"We lacked a bit of creativity to force the way through and, on top of that, we missed two or three good chances. They were really up for it, they really tried from the first to the last minute.
"We of course wanted to win the game but, looking at the history we have here, it is a positive result.
"Looking at the results of the other teams that play at the top, it's a positive result. But, overall, we missed two points today."
Ramsey had played in four of Arsenal's last five visits to the stadium where his horrific injury occurred, but was still a target for home supporters, much to the dismay of the Arsenal boss.
"I don't listen too much. I focus on the game," Wenger added.
"I shut my ears and I think that's the best way to deal with it. I don't know what to do about it, I have no influence on it. I don't know what generally you should do about it.
"When people get together, sometimes they forget their individual responsibility. Maybe when you go home and watch it on television, you are less proud."
Wenger's assertion that Stoke utilised a physical game plan was scoffed at by Potters boss Hughes, who highlighted the fact referee Craig Pawson did not issue a single caution.
He added: "I don't think there was a yellow card, was there?
"I don't know why the physical aspect of the game needs to be mentioned.
"I thought it was a good football game, with both teams trying to win a key Premier League game. That's certainly what we were doing."
Meanwhile, Wenger hopes Mesut Oezil will be fit to face Chelsea on Sunday after the German was forced to miss yesterday's match with a foot injury.
"Oezil has an inflammation of the foot. On Saturday morning, he was not very well and he was already not 100 per cent at Liverpool," said Wenger.
"I decided to leave him out, but I think he should be back for next Sunday." - Wire Services.