The man who dramatically won Arsenal’s final game of last season did the same to kick off the new campaign as Aaron Ramsey struck late to beat Crystal Palace 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. The match appeared headed for a frustrating draw for Arsene Wenger’s side and a well-deserved point for their manager-less opponents. But just minutes after Palace were reduced to 10 men when Jason Puncheon saw his second yellow card, FA Cup final hero Ramsey finished from close range after following-up Mathieu Debuchy’s saved effort in the first minute of injury time.
Crystal Palace had every reason to be in disarray on the pitch after the off-field problems that led to the exit of manager Tony Pulis less than 48 hours before the start of the Premier season. Instead, under the caretaker charge of Keith Millen, Pulis’s preparation work for the Emirates ahead of his exit was in full evidence. Palace produced a superbly disciplined defensive display of the sort that enabled them to implausibly climb out of deep relegation trouble in the second half of last season.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Arsenal failed to break their opponents down from open play. Major summer signing Alexis Sánchez was left frustrated along with the rest of the team, which also included fellow-debutants Debuchy and Calum Chambers, but was missing World Cup wining trio Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski. Both teams could only profit from set-pieces in the opening half, first when one of Palace’s new signings, and tallest man on the pitch, Brede Hangeland was inexcusably allowed a free run in the Arsenal box to head home a corner. Laurent Koscielny’s similarly deft header from Sánchez’s free-kick right before half-time brought expectations that Arsenal would take command in the second half. Instead, Palace continued to hold firm, agonizingly right until the very last.
As in the Community Shield, Wenger opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Mikel Arteta the lone man sat in front of the back four and Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Sánchez and Santi Cazorla left to focus on supporting Yaya Sanogo. But Arsenal found Palace a lot more difficult to break down than a lackluster Manchester City a week ago. Palace had almost everyone behind the ball for much of the contest and Arsenal, not aided by the tempo of their passing and lack of width as Sánchez and Cazorla both favored coming inside, could not find a way through.
Arsenal’s best moment from open play in the first half came when Wilshere fired a dangerous shot on goal form just outside the box that caused Julián Speroni to have to react smartly in order to turn wide. That shortly preceded Palace’s best attacking foray when Wojciech Szczesny was forced to race from his goal in order to cut out a quickly played through ball before former Gunner Marouane Chamakh had his long-range attempt to catch the Arsenal goalkeeper out blocked. It was from the resulting corner that Arsenal were really caught cold. Puncheon’s delivery from the corner was excellent, but just how Sánchez was left picking up towering former Fulham stalwart Hangeland is difficult to fathom. After running off the Chilean, he got ahead of Koscielny and his header was perfectly directed into the far corner.
Given how well they had done in the first 45 minutes, the frustration would have been immense that Palace conceded with just seconds remaining of the period. Just 10 minutes after debut-glory, Hangeland was the culprit in playing Koscielny onside and then allowing him to run in behind to flick home Sánchez’s chipped delivery.
Yet, although it appeared they should have had a penalty just past the hour mark when Chamakh leaned into the ball with his arm just inside the area, things did not improve for Arsenal in the second half. With the breakthrough still not arriving, Wenger withdrew Sanogo, following a wholly ineffective display that will have only fuelled critics who believe Arsenal are still a quality striker short.
His replacement, Giroud, while apparently still not up to full speed following the World Cup, immediately offered considerably more. As well as just failing to get on the end of a cross from Nacho Monreal -- on following an injury to Kieran Gibbs -- the France international turned Hangeland in the box and drilled the ball tantalizingly across the face of goal.
And, after Pucheon’s late tackle on Monreal saw him rightly shown a second yellow and key defender Scott Dann was forced off through injury, it was Giroud who played a major role in cruelly ending Palace’s resistance. The scorer of 16 Premier League goals last season rose high in the box to keep a corner alive and head down for Debuchy, whose shot was straight at Speroni but allowed Ramsey to clinically pounce.