Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored twice as Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League with a 2-0 win over a dogged Crystal Palace side at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
After a sterile first half, the 20-year-old struck two minutes into the second period to break the deadlock. He added a killer second 17 minutes from time
They were his first goals since the 7-3 thrashing of Newcastle just after Christmas in 2012.
It was a perfect way to celebrate his first Premier League start since the opening day of the season.
Arsenal’s elevation maybe be temporary given that second-place Manchester City play on Monday evening. However, Manuel Pellegrini’s side entertain Chelsea, in third, and this will have added to the pressure on both sides.
February is supposedly a key month for Arsène Wenger’s side and this was a solid start.
It was not that memorable and certainly not pretty – Palace did not allow that – but it was effective.
And that is what counts at the moment.
SETTING THE SCENE
Oxlade-Chamberlain was always the most newsworthy player on Wenger’s team-sheet this afternoon. Apart from the absence, he was stationed in central midfield as a replacement for Mathieu Flamini, who had been sent off against Southampton in midweek. The manager has suggested Oxlade-Chamberlain has the ability to be a ‘Steven Gerrard’ style player in the middle.
The other change was German-for-German on the left – Lukas Podolski replacing Serge Gnabry.
Gedion Zalalem, aged 17 years and seven days, was on the bench.
Palace had made a number of signings just before the transfer window closed. But the only ones on show today were Jason Puncheon, who had been on loan at Selhurst Park all season anyway, and keeper Wayne Hennessey, who was on the bench.
The opening was lively if ragged. The first 15 minutes was punctuated by a scare at either end.
Mesut Ozil hoisted a ball over the Palace defence. Though the galloping Nacho Monreal collected the ball in his stride, Julian Speroni raced out to smother as the Spaniard tried to get his shot away.
Then, at the other end, Marouane Chamakh burst clear momentarily but could only shoot tamely at Wojciech Szczesny.
It was an isolated involvement for the Pole as Arsenal bossed the game.
Palace would try to use the pace of Yannick Bolasie on the left both to counter and relieve relentless Arsenal pressure.
However, while the home side enjoyed almost 80 per cent of the possession and camped just outside the Palace area, Speroni was barely tested.
As expected, the visitors came with a resolute organisation; the very quality that had seen them climb out of the relegation recently after a horrible start.
This looked like an afternoon of attrition for Arsenal.
On 34 minutes, Speroni made a fine sprawling save after Ozil’s free-kick had got the merest touch off the head of Laurent Koscielny.
It appeared that set pieces were Arsenal’s best hope in the first half. They had conjured up four shots in the first 45 minutes, three from dead-ball situations.
A watertight opening period would find a very different flow straight after the restart.
Within two minutes Arsenal were ahead. Cazorla conjured the ball between his feet in the right-hand channel before lifting a pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left.
The Englishman controlled it with one touch and lifted a shot over Speroni into the net with the next.
It seemed to be the significant breakthrough.
But Palace nearly equalised immediately with one of the lightning breaks that had been sporadically threatening in the first half.
Bolasie nodded on Puncheon’s left-wing cross to Cameron Jerome at the far post post. The striker produced a firm downward header but Szczesny saved wonderfully with his legs.
Shortly afterward Podolski fired into the side-netting when well placed.
Those three chances combined represented more goalmouth action than we had seen throughout the opening period.
And now Palace were behind, they had to break out of their defensive shell.
As a result, the game was much more of a spectacle.
But the ambition of the visitors gave Arsenal greater space. It would be ruthlessly exploited.
In the 73rd minute Oxlade-Chamberlain played a one-two with Giroud before striding forward and burying a low shot past Speroni.
For the first time, Arsenal had a measure of comfort in the game.
Palace continued to press but the home ‘saw-out’ the remaining minutes with ease.
Referee: Jon Moss
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