Arsenal hold on to take all three points at Palace
Alexis Sanchez’s double was enough to get them over the line despite a late scare
Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez celebrates with Hector Bellerin after netting his side’s third goal during their Premier League clash with Crystal Palace. Photo: Ben Stansall/Getty Images
Crystal Palace 2 Arsenal 3
Arsenal are back to counting this corner of south London as a home from home. Recent history had always suggested last season’s defeat here had been an aberration, a solitary loss suffered in 12 league visits, but on this first return to the ground since then they were restored to their effervescent best. Crystal Palace, with the exception of a brief period after they had equalised, struggled to cope and were swept aside.
Prevailing in what must have felt an awkward occasion was a fine way for Arsène to celebrate his 810th Premier League game in charge, a tally to match that of Alex Ferguson in the revamped topflight. The top four is a mere point away and some confidence has been restored in terms of this team’s away form. A trip to West Brom on Sunday, another venue where they had sunk without trace last year, suddenly feels like an opportunity.
Perhaps memories of the rare if chastening defeat at Selhurst Park in mid-April had influenced Wenger’s team selection. The Arsenal manager had spent much of the eve of this contest suggesting the time had come to ditch the three at the back formation he had adopted in the wake of the 3-0 loss last season, bemoaning the fact his team “didn’t score enough goals away from home,” with their play “a bit too lateral”. Yet hHere he reverted to a trio of centre-halves, recalled Calum Chambers for a first league appearance since the campaign’s opening weekend and flung Sead Kolasinac, impressive since his summer arrival, back in at left wing-back. Comfortable in the formation, and free to express themselves with Palace so lethargic, the visitors duly imposed themselves.
There was an energy to their approach which Palace could not initially match. Passes were made at ease, Jack Wilshere busily impressive at the heart of everything they created, while the home side were so hesitant, nervous at the stream of runners suddenly infiltrating their lines. Nothing illustrated that better than Alexis Sánchez’s delicious diagonal slide-rule pass beyond James Tomkins for the on-rushing Mesut Özil to flick goalwards, only for Julian Speroni to thrust out a left hand and instinctively paw the attempt away. The German was crestfallen and would waltz through the centre again before the half was out, this time undoing his work with a heavy touch. Regardless, by then, his team’s lead had been established and their dominance had hardly been challenged.
There were prolonged periods of Arsenal possession while visiting players toyed with their markers and attempted to manoeuvre themselves into position to pounce. Scott Dann had twice mustered desperate blocks to stifle goal-bound shots when a soft free-kick was awarded and Palace, horribly tentative, laboured to clear their lines. Alexandre Lacazette was duly permitted to turn inside and curl a left-footed shot which was only pushed out by the diving Speroni with Shkodran Mustafi, alone beyond Martin Kelly at the far post, calmly side-footing into the gaping net. Sánchez, standing with one foot beyond the back-line, had made a half-hearted attempt to reach Lacazette’s effort, but the offside appeals were half-hearted.
So was much of the home side’s play, frustration eventually overcoming Wilfried Zaha – well contained up to then by Héctor Bellerín – with his constant protests directed at the referee prompting a caution as the teams left the field at the interval. The Ivorian’s whipped shot, bent wide of the far post, had represented Palace’s only attempt of note with Christian Benteke, so often the scourge of Arsenal, isolated among opposing centre-backs. As a unit they had spluttered, just as they had for 84 minutes against Watford earlier this month before Zaha inspired a late rally. It would take the winger refocusing at the interval to force parity.
It has become a truism in recent years that, if teams stifle the 25-year-old, they go almost all the way to blunting Palace, yet that is easier said than done these days. Five minutes after the restart, with Bellerín still contemplating how he had failed to ease the visitors further ahead from Sánchez’s centre, Zaha gathered possession and teased sufficient space from Chambers. The dart to the byeline went unchecked with the cut-back just beyond the penalty spot met emphatically by Andros Townsend, fizzing his first-time shot beyond the static Petr Cech.
Briefly, Arsenal’s composure was shaken, unnerved by Zaha’s gliding menace. Yet their attacking play had been hypnotic all evening and was always likely to prevail. Sure enough, with Palace failing to clear their lines, Lacazette considered his options before laying off for Sánchez, busily effective all evening, to belt a shot inside Speroni’s near-post. That restored the pizzazz to the visitors’ play and, four minutes later, Wilshere’s wonderfully weighted lofted pass over the home centre-halves was collected by the Chilean on the run to clip a third unerringly into the corner.
Tomkins gave Palace late hope when he headed their second but it was not enough to prevent the end of their eight-match unbeaten run. To make matters considerably worse, Manchester City are due at Selhurst Park on Sunday lunchtime. Roy Hodgson has always been painfully realistic about their predicament. That will not change any time soon. – Guardian service