Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capped his first Premier League start since the opening day of the season with both goals against Crystal Palace on Sunday to return Arsenal to the top of the table.
It what was a testing afternoon at the Emirates for the home side against a well-organized and disciplined Crystal Palace outfit who often showed why they had kept back-to-back clean sheets coming into the contest. But Oxlade-Chamberlain produced two pieces of game-winning dynamism and quality in the second half to decide the match in his team’s favor.
It is a win that could prove to be vital. It takes Arsenal two points above Manchester City and five above Chelsea, with their two title rivals facing off on Monday evening. With their next two Premier League games coming against Liverpool and Manchester United, before they take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Arsenal could ill-afford to follow-up their draw against Southampton in midweek with further dropped points.
That fact that they didn’t owes much to their returning midfielder. With Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere still on the sidelines and the man signed to cover for them, Kim Kallstrom, also ruled out, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to fitness and form after a knee injury has come at a welcome time. While there was much criticism of Arsene Wenger’s failure to sign a striker in the January transfer window, once again Arsenal have found a player to step up with the goals when needed.
The pattern of the contest had been established early, with Palace leaving just Cameron Jerome forward and focused on restricting their opponents. The onus was firmly on Arsenal to break their opponents down, but for much of the first half their passing and movement was labored.
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When they did quicken the tempo, the hosts looked dangerous. Their main threat was exploiting the space out wide, particularly through Nacho Monreal down the left. On more than one occasion, though the Spanish full-back’s final product lacked the requisite quality. The closest Arsenal would come to breaking the deadlock in the opening 45 minutes was when Laurent Koscielny’s failure to make contact with a chipped free-kick form Mesut Ozil caused Julian Speroni to have to react late to tip the ball wide of the post.
Palace boss Tony Pulis will have been delighted at half-time. His strategy of keeping his defense narrow, shielded by three players in front of them and wide midfielders dropping off in the mold of full-backs both prevented Arsenal’s midfielders finding space in between the lines and blocked avenues into which to play their trademark defense-splitting passes.
There will have been massive disappointment and frustration then that Palace switched off for the first time in the match just two minutes after the restart. Santi Cazorla took advantage of the space afforded him to pick out a fine pass for Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose run from deep had been left unchecked by Marouane Chamakh and the midfielder deftly controlled the ball before lofting a delightful finish over Speroni.
Having finally broken down the Palace wall, Arsenal so nearly conceded an almost-immediate equalizer. Jerome will surely still be mulling over his gilt-edge chance as he arrived onto a flick-on inside the six-yard box at the far post but headed too close to Wojciech Szczesny who regardless made a fine stop.
Despite having broached the barriers of their opponents, Arsenal initially continued to find it difficult to find space going forward. Still, Lukas Podolski might have done better than lashing a shot from an angle into the side netting. And the result was sealed with 17 minutes remaining.
Oxlade-Chamberlain flicked the ball off to Giroud before turning and bursting forward to receive a return pass from his teammate and haring in on goal, cutting across the Palace defenders and he did so. His shot was hard and low, but close enough to Speroni that the Palace goalkeeper will be disappointed that he didn’t make a better stab of keeping it at bay. Still, that should take nothing away from what was another quality goal to cap a memorable display by the young England midfielder.