Hughes surprised by stellar Arsenal form

Stoke boss Mark Hughes admits he has been surprised Arsenal have managed to sustain their Barclays Premier League title challenge to this point of the season.

Arsenal's Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sanogo

Despite spending much of the campaign leading the top flight, the Gunners have frequently had their chances of becoming 2013/14 league champions written off by pundits.

But with 11 matches to go - starting with Saturday's clash with the Potters at the Britannia Stadium - Arsenal are second in the table, a point behind Chelsea and two clear of third-placed Manchester City, who have a game in hand.

And having been among the doubters, Hughes can now see Arsene Wenger's side remaining in the title race right up to its conclusion, which he feels may well come on the final weekend of the season.

Asked about the way things have gone for Arsenal this term, Hughes said: "It has been surprising I think. It would be fair to say I didn't expect them to maintain it.

"They have always been an outstanding team and they have great ability within their ranks, but I just felt maybe they wouldn't have the ability to sustain a challenge."

He added: "I think there are possibly stronger challengers, stronger teams that could take it away from them.

"But they have done really well up to this point to maintain that challenge and it wouldn't surprise me if they were able to go right to the wire.

"I think everybody anticipates that it is going to be really close this year and is likely to go to the last weekend."

Wenger's tenure as Arsenal manager has seen them win three Premier League titles, but their last silverware was the 2004/05 FA Cup and Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho recently branded the Frenchman a "specialist in failure".

Regarding the Gunners' trophy drought, Hughes said: "I think that will always be something people will use as a stick to hit Arsene over the head with, and he is at a top club where there is an expectation that you have to win trophies.

"Obviously in recent years he hasn't been able to do that, but there have been circumstances why, I feel.

"They have moved into a new stadium (the Emirates Stadium) and maybe finances, certainly initially, were less readily available than possibly they are now.

"I'm sure that hampered his ability to bring in the talent he felt he needed to win trophies.

"But now they have had a good season and I think they are in a position to kick on.

"They have been in the stadium a long time and are reaping the benefits of increased income, I'm sure."

While Arsenal, beaten only once in 11 Premier League games, are looking strong, there are several reasons for 15th-placed Stoke to be feeling encouraged going into Saturday's fixture.

Their record against the Gunners at home since being promoted to the top flight in 2008 shows two wins, two draws and just one defeat in the league, as well as an FA Cup victory, and the Potters have proven difficult to overcome at the Britannia Stadium in general this term, losing only two league matches there.

They have also shown their ability to rise to the occasion when playing major sides during the campaign, drawing 0-0 with Manchester City and beating Chelsea 3-2 and Manchester United 2-1 - again, all at home.

And Hughes, who took over as Stoke boss last summer, said: "We have really enjoyed going up against the top teams and testing ourselves, and Arsenal have been a team that have come to the Britannia Stadium in the past and have possibly struggled more against Stoke than any other team. So we have to maintain that.

"All managers - myself included - have grounds or teams you go up against and maybe you don't enjoy the experience.

"I'm not going to tell you who mine are, but we seem to be one of those teams, or the Britannia is one of those venues, that Arsenal, in the past, have had a problem with.

"It is up to us to make sure that continues, and it is important that we continue to have good form at home because that has been a real strength of ours this season."

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