Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal: Gunners Show Grit Required for Title Challenge

James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  Olivier Giroud of Arsenal celebrates his goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Arsenal at Selhurst Park on October 26, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

This match probably didn't go quite as expected for Arsenal. Nevertheless, it was a vital three points for the Gunners and yet more evidence that this team has the psychological fortitude they have lacked in recent years.

Coming in to the match, many fans anticipated Arsenal would thrash Palace. The South London side were hammered 4-1 by Martin Jol's Fulham earlier this week, and lost their manager, Ian Holloway, just a couple of days before this game. It looked, on paper, like a no-contest.

The Gunners were expected to blow the Eagles out of the sky. However, under the stewardship of their defensive-minded caretaker boss, Keith Millen, Palace proved to be organised and difficult to break down.

In the first half, Arsenal dominated possession but somehow managed to create fewer clear goalscoring opportunities than Palace, who offered intermittent threats on the break. Palace’s occasional attacking threat was provided by two former Arsenal men: Jerome Thomas and Maroune Chamakh. The former’s pace and the latter’s intelligent hold-up play meant that Arsenal could not afford to let their concentration drop.

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Palace were helped by the terrain. The South London club elected to keep their grass long and dry, slowing down Arsenal’s slick passing. What’s more, Arsenal looked tired after their midweek exertions against Dortmund. The Eagles sensed an upset.

However, whatever Arsene Wenger said at half-time sparked an immediate improvement in Arsenal’s performance. From the moment the whistle went to signal the start of the second half, Wenger’s team played with more purpose and precision.

Within two minutes, Arsenal won a penalty. Serge Gnabry, who had been introduced as a substitute for the injured Mathieu Flamini, darted into the penalty area and was brought down by a poorly timed tackle from Adlene Guedioura.

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Mikel Arteta stepped up to convert the penalty superbly. However, the Spaniard’s afternoon was about to take a turn for the worse.

Just a few minutes later, Arteta was dismissed for a challenge on Marouane Chamakh. A Palace counter-attack set Chamakh through on goal, albeit some 40 yards out, and he went to ground after a shoulder-to-shoulder tussle with Chamakh.

It was a contentious call from Chris Foy. Much of the post-match debate surrounded whether or not Chamakh’s sprint towards goal represented a "clear goalscoring opportunity." 

However, there are also question marks over whether Arteta’s challenge was even a foul. Replays suggest that Chamakh initiated the challenge, and merely ran into his former teammate.

"The sending off was a wrong decision because it has to be a clear goalscoring opportunity," Wenger told BBC Sport. "He was a long way from goal."

Wenger added: "It has to be the last man and that is not proven to me. Also the foul was not obvious."

Whether or not the decision to send Arteta off was correct, Arsenal had to adjust to the reality of facing an increasingly buoyant Palace side with 10 men. The Gunners could not afford to feel sorry for themselves.

Arsenal were able to rely on some outstanding defensive performances. Wojciech Szczesny produced two world-class saves to deny Palace from range, while Bacary Sagna put in a typically battling display at right-back to keep sprightly substitute Yannick Bolasie at bay.

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Arsenal even managed to grab a second goal to seal the victory. Olivier Giroud played a one-two with Aaron Ramsey, the Welshman deftly dinking a cross into the box for Giroud to head home. 

While the goal was vintage Arsenal, the performance wasn’t. Nevertheless, Arsenal got the three points they needed to stay on top of the table.

It is something of a truism that title-challenging sides are able to win without playing well. Nevertheless, Arsenal managed to do exactly that, which will give Arsene Wenger enormous satisfaction. The likes of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil were not at their sparkling best in this game, but Wenger’s gutsy Gunners showed the spirit required to hold Palace off and ensure victory.