Arsenal 2 Crystal Palace 0
Perhaps Arsenal did make a significant addition in the January transfer window after all.
It may not have been the big-name and big-money signing the fans wanted, but the return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could prove vital in the Premier League title race.
Sidelined since the opening day of the season with a knee injury, the England international has quietly played his way back to peak form and fitness, and when none of his team-mates were able to break down an obdurate Crystal Palace, he was the one that finally stepped up to do so.
His two goals here were his first for Arsenal since December 2012, and they were greeted with an outpouring of relief that illustrated how important this game was for the hosts.
Victory took them back to the top of the table and ensured they will watch tonight’s match between the other contenders, Manchester City and Chelsea, from a position of strength.
Arsene Wenger’s men are still seen as outsiders for the title, but they keep managing to find a way. In truth they have not played well since Christmas but have won six of their last seven — their last three home games by the comfortable scoreline of 2-0, while they have not conceded at the Emirates since December 8.
They now face the first of two runs that could define their season, playing Liverpool and Manchester United in the league, Liverpool again in the FA Cup and Bayern Munich in the Champions League. But they are consistently able to do just enough, even against opponents as well organised and obdurate as Palace were here, with Oxlade-Chamberlain making all the difference here.
“I am glad I can give something back to the fans,” said Oxlade-Chamberlain. “I have been off the pitch for a while so it’s nice to be back.
“I said many times that his future will be central,” said Wenger on why he put Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield alongside Mikel Arteta.
“He has proven me right today, by scoring goals and also by the quality of his performance. We needed to get three points. We needed to be patient, intelligent and use our opportunities that most of the time come in the second half. That’s what we did.”
Arsenal’s victory should not detract from the work done by Palace and Tony Pulis, though. They had taken 16 points from their last 11 games and halved the number of goals conceded since Pulis succeeded Ian Holloway, and it was not hard to see why in a first half during which their 4-5-1 formation succeeded in nullifying Arsenal. Until Oxlade-Chamberlain took charge they were comfortable, and it is a sign of the sea-change Pulis has wrought that he was unhappy with the result.
“We were really disappointed to give a poor goal away just after half-time,” he said. “That was their big moment and our big moment happened 90 seconds later and we don’t take it. That is the difference in lots of respects.”
Yet this was undoubtedly Oxlade-Chamberlain’s day. He was expected to blossom this season but that cruel blow on the opening day of the season ensured he had to start afresh.
Perhaps the most direct member of the Arsenal squad, there is something intensely exciting watching him running at pace, something Marouane Chamakh — who otherwise had a good game — failed to notice as he allowed the 20-year-old to sprint past him two minutes after half-time.
The pass from Santi Cazorla was exquisite, and the finish was sublime as Oxlade-Chamberlain killed the ball with his right foot and dinked it over Julian Speroni with his left.
Arsenal’s only moment of genuine worry came moments later as Wojciech Szczesny did superbly to stop Cameron Jerome’s header from close range, and the game was made safe with 17 minutes to go.
It was another fine move as Oxlade-Chamberlain swapped passes with Olivier Giroud before driving at the heart of the Palace defence. Irish international Damien Delaney fatally backed away and Oxlade-Chamberlain found the bottom corner, although Speroni should have saved.
After that, all that was left was to discuss the one signing that Arsenal did make, the rather odd addition of Kim Kallstrom. The Swede has signed on loan until the end of the season, but having discovered he has a micro-fracture to his back, Kallstrom will miss six weeks, with parent club Spartak Moscow paying his wages during that time.
It is one of the strangest transfers Wenger has overseen at the club, and the Frenchman admits Kallstrom may never play under him.
“I would not have signed him if we had two or three more days to do something, but it was Friday night at five o’clock, so it was (a case of) you (sign) nobody or you do it under these conditions. There is a possibility (he might not play for the club) but as well there is the possibility that he scores us the winning goal that might be vitally important. To find a player on a free loan, of that quality, on Wednesday morning until Friday night, is not easy.”
But for now, it was the other January new boy who was key.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 8, Sagna 7, Mertesacker 8, Koscielny 8, Monreal 7, Arteta 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 9, Podolski 6 (Rosicky, 72; 7), Cazorla 6, Ozil 6 (Gibbs 84; 6), Giroud 6 (Bendtner, 84; 6).
CRYSTAL PALACE: Speroni 7, Ward 7, Delaney 7, Gabbidon 6, Parr 6, Jedinak 7, Dikgacoi 6, Bolasie 7, Puncheon 6, Chamakh 7 (Gayle, 82; 6), Jerome 6 (Bannan, 56; 7).
Wenger hopes for a fit Kallstrom this month
By Jim van Wijk
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hopes midfielder Kim Kallstrom will be fit from a back problem by the end of February, but admitted he would probably not have signed the Swede in a deadline day loan move if he had been aware of the injury earlier.
It has since emerged the former Lyon midfielder is set for an extended spell on the sideline with a back injury, suffered on warm-weather training with the Russian club.
Wenger said: “Being fit at the end of February is the best-case scenario. I am sure if you have played football you might have played with a micro-fracture of your vertebra without even noticing it because on a normal scan you don’t find out.
“They Spartak Moscow will pay the first six weeks’ wages. He might play before that the end of February, but he might play as well later.”
Asked if he considering pulling out of the deal, Wenger said: “Of course it crossed my mind. I decided to do it as we might, because of the number of games we have now in February, need the players in March or April.
“There is a possibility that he may not play, but there is the possibility that he scores us the winning goal that might be vitally important.”
He added: “At some stage in our job you have to make a decision. Are you wrong or right? You will only know at the end of the season.”
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