Wenger was quick to highlight the fight and spirit his side showed once Crystal Palace had levelled through Joel Ward’s strike after falling behind to a superb, acrobatic volley from Olivier Giroud. The Arsenal manager also had cause to be grateful for the good fortune enjoyed by the visitors.
The winning goal came via the boot of Damien Delaney, the Palace captain, the Corkman slicing a clearance into his goal as he attempted to divert Alexis Sanchez’s 55th-minute header to safety. By then, however, Arsenal could have been reduced to 10 men after Francis Coquelin, booked in the 41st minute for a foul on Yannick Bolasie, escaped further punishment despite fouling Wilfried Zaha in first-half added time.
Alan Pardew, the Palace manager, accepted that decision but was convinced the midfielder should not have enjoyed a further reprieve in the 63rd minute when he brought down James McArthur. The Arsenal bench appeared to concur, substituting Coquelin immediately to ensure they were fully manned and able to withstand sustained late pressure as the home side went in search of a second equaliser.
“I had a chat with Lee (Mason, the referee) in the tunnel at half-time and we agreed that he shouldn’t have been sent off — you don’t want that,” said Pardew. “But I said that’s his last chance, he can’t afford another challenge, and he did. But (Mason) didn’t make the call.
“He should have been sent off. Our bench thought he should have gone. Their bench did too, so taking him off was a natural reaction. The foul just before half-time was debatable, a cynical challenge, but give people the benefit of the doubt. But you can’t make another one. The third one...” Wenger admitted he reacted because he feared the threat of Coquelin being dismissed was growing too strong, “Every time he intervened, the crowd were behind it and putting pressure on the referee,” said Wenger. “I didn’t like to take him off after 60 minutes, but I didn’t have much room.” The nature of the post-match debate surrounding Coquelin highlighted the tight margins that separated the two teams in a thrillingly open game.
Arsenal, inspired throughout by the excellent Mesut Ozil, started like a team with a point to prove, exploiting an uncharacteristic series of errors from the home side to dominate the opening 15 minutes, capping the period with Giroud’s goal.
With Santi Cazorla at the heart of another expansive move, the visitors moved the ball across the pitch towards Ozil on the left from where the Germany international picked out Giroud lurking near the penalty spot. The chance was by no means a clear one with the ball heading behind the striker’s shoulder, but the France international contorted his body to hook the ball back left-footed and direct it past keeper Alex McCarthy.
Sanchez should have added a second when he headed over from close range but Palace began to find their feet and levelled in the 27th minute when right-back Joel Ward struck the ball crisply past Petr Cech from 20 yards after being set up by McArthur.
From then on, the outcome was never certain and Palace should have taken the lead when Connor Wickham struck the post shortly after the restart. The miss appeared even more costly when Sanchez rose well at the far post to meet Ozil’s cross with a downward header that flew past McCarthy via Delaney’s boot to give Arsenal the lead.
Palace’s threat still persisted until the final whistle.
Relief then, for Wenger and his players. “I’m very pleased with the three points,” said the manager. “If we had gone two games and zero points, it would be absolutely difficult and we knew this would be a tricky one. Last week we had a bit of a stroll and thought we would win the game. Today we played real Premier League football from the first minute to the last.”
McCarthy 8; Ward 7, Dann 7, Delaney 6, Souare 7; Bolasie 6 (Mutch 46, 6), McArthur 8(Bamford 81), Cabaye 8, Puncheon 7, Zaha 6 (Lee 75, 6); Wickham 6.
Cech 6; Bellerin 7, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 5, Monreal 7; Coquelin 6 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 64,6), Cazorla 8; Ramsey 6, Ozil 9 (Gibbs 83), Sanchez 7 (Arteta 75, 6); Giroud 7.