Alexis Sanchez’s goal fails to see off determined Crystal Palace as Arsenal stutter again
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Arsenal drew 1-1 with Crystal Palace in a lively London derby - putting the last rites on a title bid that has been in name only over the last few weeks.
Alexis Sanchez netted with a looping header moments before half-time as Palace showed fight and commitment ahead of their FA semi-final at Wembley next week.
The visitors determined attitude brought a reward with six minutes left as Yannick Bolasie fired in a low shot to level for his team.
Earlier the Chilean’s header meant the Gunners were still mathematically in the hunt for the title after Leicester City drew 2-2 with West Ham United in the day’s earlier game – until Arsenal fan Bolasie’s late intervention.
Arsene Wenger’s team were unbeaten in four games prior to kick-off as they also rediscovered their goalscoring touch with nine goals in three games.
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Petr Cech was recalled in place of David Ospina but the game came too soon for Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky.
Wenger considered recalling Per Mertesacker after Gabriel’s horror show against West Ham United’s Andy Carroll last week. The big Geordie traumatised the entire Gunners backline but targeted Gabriel in netting a hattrick in a pulsating 3-3 that was no good for Arsenal’s title prospects. In the Wenger stuck with the Brazilian as they at least tried to keep up the pretence of a title challenge – that in honesty faded long ago.
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Admittedly those die-hard fans who consider the title to still be mathematically possible are in an ever-decreasing number as for many the hope died weeks, if not months ago – despite the Eastenders’ taking two points off the leaders in the East Midlands before kick-off in N5.
Meanwhile the South Londoners had Dwight Gayle out while Wilfred Zaha passed a late fitness test on his injured shoulder to sit on the bench.
Crystal Palace travelled to North London with one eye on their FA Cup semi-final against Watford next weekend. They could even afford to raise a wry smile at the fact they were virtually safe from relegation – despite an appalling run of one win in 16 games.
With Arsenal in their usual end-of-term mode – even if the pressure to challenge for the league title shifted a little with the Foxes 2-1 home defeat against last week’s conquerors West Ham, meaning they were ‘only’ 13 points behind with six to play – they played with verve and what the Spanish call illusion.
But the only illusion that should have concentrated their minds was the perception in January that they were considered favourites to life the Premier League for the first time since the glorious Invincibles team of 2004.
However, they never really recovered from a late Liverpool equaliser on a frenzied Anfield night in January, producing a succession of results there were as poor as they were disappointing to their long-suffering supporters.
As Leicester – and whisper it, Spurs – continued to show the consistency that were the hallmark of George Graham sides, as well as Wenger’s great teams, the side from the red-and-white half of North London fell away. Specifically with a galling 3-2 loss at Old Trafford in late February, against a Manchester United side that could kindly be described as less-than-vintage.
An unexpected but thoroughly deserved defeat at home to Swansea City days later suddenly meant the Frenchman’s team were relieved of their favourites tag – as they then crashed out of the FA Cup and Champions League to Watford and Barcelona respectively.
And it was only typical of the side to crush an insipid Watford team 4-0 in the league when the pressure was off.
Just as it was today against a Palace side with nothing to play for in the league ahead of their Wembley date next week.
The opening stages were dominated by Arsenal’s clever movement, on and off the ball as Alexis Sanchez, in particular, looked lively.
But on 15 minutes, Pape Soure fired in a high cross into a crowded box. Scott Dann rose to meet it but the ball flew narrowly wide.
Fresh from the memory of last’s week’s horror show in failing to cope with aerial balls into the box for Carroll – and the ease in which Dann met the ball today - you have to ask with exasperation: just what do Wenger, and sadly, it has to be said, Steve Bould, work on all week?
Because it certainly can’t be anything to do with dealing with one of the basics of English football – the high ball into the box.
The game progressed at a good intensity with both teams looking to press forward.
However there was little end product and the biggest cheers of the afternoon up to that point were when referee Roger East fell over.
It was that sort of game.
On 35 minutes a Mesut Ozil corner was met by Laurent Koscielny but the centre-half with a knack for scoring headed the ball over Wayne Hennessey’s bar.
With eight minutes remaining an incisive ball from Mohamed Elneny found Danny Welbeck who drove on until he was brought down 30 yards out.
A clutch of red shirts eagerly gathered around the ball as Sanchez was the man to take it. He flighted the ball over the wall but narrowly wide. Referee East decreed it was to be a corner that led to a sustained spell of pressure.
Unfortunately, like so much of the preparatory work today it led to nothing.
Moments later good work by Sanchez saw the Chilean feed an onrushing Ozil whose instinctive shot, as he ran into the box, was blocked by Hennessey.
Right on half-time Sanchez was finally to break the deadlock as a determined Welbeck fired the ball into the box for Sanchez to aim a looping header over an advancing Hennessey.
Between the two events Connor Wickham angled a header over Petr Cech’s goal as yet again the Gunners’ backline failed to adequately deal with a high ball into the box.
Yet, in truth Sanchez’s goal was little more than the home side deserved, as referee East whistled for half time shortly afterwards with the score One-Nil-To-The-Arsenal.
The second half started in much the same fashion, as Arsenal probed with neat interplay.
The atmosphere ramped up a little when Emmanuel Adebayor deigned to warm up.
The former Arsenal striker was a target for many - not only for his Spurs links, but also because of the way he singularly failed to perform towards the latter part of his Gunners’ career.
This correspondent can certainly recall an insipid performance that let down many travelling fans at Old Trafford in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final back in 2008 – when the Togolese gave one of the laziest performances an Arsenal centre-forward has ever given.
Back on the pitch however, Ozil then fired a left-footed free kick narrowly past Hennessey’s despairing dive. Unfortunately it also went the wrong side of the post as the scored remained 1-0.
With 25 minutes remaining Adebayor then replaced Connor Wickham – to the loudest boos heard at the Emirates since Emile Heskey was targeted days after England lost to Croatia 3-2 meaning the country failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
Arsenal then spurned some half chances including a Sanchez daisy-cutter that just went the wrong side of the goal after he cut inside.
However, Yannick Bolaise, after evading Coquelin’s challenge fired in a low shot which Cech couldn’t keep out – much to the delight of the player who ran to Alan Pardew as the three-thousand Palace fans celebrated wildly with six minutes left.
The game ended yet again in frustration for Arsenal as Palace - although under pressure for much of the match - arguably deserved their share of the spoils as they look towards Wembley next weekend.
For Arsene Wenger and his team you can’t escape the feeling exists this game - and this season – could, and should have been so much better.
Cech, Gabriel, Koscielny, Ozil, Sanchez, Monreal, Welbeck (Giroud), Bellerin, Coquelin, Elneny, Iwobi (Ramsey)
Hennessey, Ward, Dann, Cabaye, Bolaise, Jedinak, Wickham (Adebayor), Souare, Delaney, (Souare), Ledley, Puncheon (Zaha).
Referee: Roger East.