|Cesc Fabregas is substituted while walking past English striker Theo Walcott (R), who also went off injured later in the match. AFP|
LONDON, Feb 23, 2011 (AFP) - Sebastien Squillaci headed the winner at the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal beat Stoke to move within a point of Manchester United at the top of the Premier League here Wednesday.
But the victory came at a cost as both Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott were forced off with injuries.
Fabregas went off after 14 minutes with what appeared to be a minor muscle strain, but Walcott's injury looked far more serious.
After a thumping challenge from Dean Whitehead he lay prone for three minutes before being taken off in agony on a stretcher.
Arsenal are already missing Robin van Persie in attack and Laurent Koscielny in defence as they head into a crucial period of games including the League Cup final and the Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona.
Stoke kept Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones on the bench, as John Carew was picked as a lone striker.
Arsenal headed into this game, the first of five for the north London side in the next 14 days, off the back of a nine-match unbeaten run in the Premier League.
Their home league form in particular is formidable -- they are unbeaten since losing to Tottenham Hostpur back in November.
And they were close to going a goal ahead after less than two minutes, as Jack Wilshere darted through the visiting defence to set up Walcott, who hit the bar.
Six minutes later, they were ahead as Nicklas Bendtner turned the ball back towards goal off an overhit corner for centre-back Squillaci to head in.
But then 15 minutes in Arsene Wenger was forced to take off Fabregas with what looked like a hamstring strain -- which is not what the manager would have wanted with four more games in the next two weeks.
Fabregas's loss took the wind out of Arsenal's sails and it took a full 13 minutes for them to register another shot on target as Andrey Arshavin -- who had come on for the captain -- drew Asmir Begovic into an easy save.
Stoke began to get a foothold and Carew drew Wojciech Szczesny into a diving save with a 30-yard effort after Jonathan Walters had done well to beat Bacary Sagna then cut back from the byline.
The visitors served notice after the break that they were far from out of the game, as Carew gave Wenger more ammunition to question their footballing pedigree, after the Arsenal manager had accused them of playing rugby earlier in the season.
Carew shoulder-barged Gael Clichy out of the way, before Jermaine Pennant got a cross in from the right and Ryan Shawcross was left alone to head goalward, but Johan Djourou was able to block the ball.
Then Dean Whitehead, Marc Wilson and Rory Delap were guilty of rash challenges in a five-minute period, yet all escaped punishment.
Robert Huth headed just over the bar for Stoke off a long Delap throw on the hour, before Walcott let a chance go begging by shooting wide on 64 minutes with Begovic well out of position.
That was his last contribution of the night as he was taken off on a stretcher on 71 minutes, adding to Arsenal's injury worries in a crucial stage of the season.