Review by Richard Foster (Twitter: @rcfoster)
After the misery of Palace’s 2016 league form – which yielded a measly 6 wins over 12 months – and with a new manager in place, the hope was that 2017 would mark a change in fortunes. However, following a respectable 1-1 draw away at Watford on Boxing Day, a visit to The Emirates was always going to be a more rigorous test of the team’s credentials. And the atrocious weather did not augur well, as rain swept across the vast soulless bowl at Ashburton Grove, and even the normal unrelenting spirit of the Palace fans was somewhat dampened.
The action on the pitch was not especially uplifting either. The Eagles struggled to retain possession and with Arsenal’s full backs finding plenty of space on both flanks, the threat of a goal for the home side was always there. The flat atmosphere even extended to the match ball, which had to be replaced twice in the opening exchanges – symptomatic of the prevailing mood among the away fans! It seemed only a matter of time before the deadlock would be broken, and so when the first goal came it was not unexpected, but the manner of it was extraordinary.
A neat passing move – that started when Andros Townsend’s loose pass was picked up on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area – was swept forward, including an impudent back heel from Olivier Giroud near the centre circle. When the ball was eventually delivered into the Palace box by Alexis Sanchez, Giroud showed he had mastered the knack of the back heel, flicking his leg behind him and sending the ball into the net via the crossbar. The goal was met by a few seconds of silence as everybody tried to take in what had actually happened. It was somewhere between a moment of genius and a moment of great luck, as the goal scorer himself admitted later.
The rest of the first half was played out with a sense of stunned awe at what had happened, and the Palace defence looked a little shaken. They almost gifted a couple of goals, and there was a sense of relief at reaching half-time only one goal down. The only shot on target was celebrated by the Palace fans with a sense of ironic humour that can help getting through tough times. Wilfried Zaha was being tightly shackled by several Arsenal players and the referee, Andre Marriner, was clearly was unsympathetic to the Palace winger’s justified appeals over being fouled.
The second half started with Christian Benteke sending a header just wide, but after that the game followed a similar pattern. Arsenal probed dangerously and the pressure built, until eventually Alex Iwobi popped up with a header that looped into the net. A combination of Joel Ward and James Tomkins failed to keep it out, and the die was cast. Immediately after the second goal Palace did enjoy a brief spell of pressure, with Petr Cech making a good save from another Benteke header, and Yohan Cabaye hitting a powerful volley that Cech repelled. And that was pretty much it in terms of threats to Arsenal’s dominance.
Sam Allardyce seemed to accept that the game was gone when taking off both Cabaye and Benteke – no doubt with a view to resting them for the game against Swansea. Allardyce said as much in his press conference, admitting that Arsenal were far superior and making the point that results against the teams in the bottom half of the league would determine the club’s fate. As the Palace fans trooped off into the North London rain, thoughts of Giroud’s goal were already being replaced by the prospects of Tuesday’s crucial meeting with Swansea.