“It was a difficult game for us against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. On the day we had to fight very hard, we were down to 10 men after Arteta was sent off and it was not easy to win the match.
“Since then Tony Pulis has done a very good job with them and, from a desperate situation, got them out of the relegation zone. He's stabilised their defensive record, built up belief again so, you must say, he has done extremely well.”
If you view the visit of Crystal Palace as the “gimme” game of February then think again. Much has been made of the fixtures this month and certainly the immediate aftermath of Sunday - Liverpool (a), Manchester United (h), Bayern Munich (h) and Liverpool (h) – looks fiendishly difficult.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Flamini (suspension), Ramsey (thigh), Walcott (knee), Diaby (knee), Sanogo (match fitness)Crystal Palace: Gabbidon (doubt - calf), Thomas (calf), Murray (knee), Dikgacoi (calf)|
But then December – with Manchester City (a) and Chelsea (h) - was supposed to be decisive for Arsenal, yet they ended it on top. In fact it took the last game of the dividing month for Manuel Pellegrini’s side to push Arsène Wenger’s outfit into second place. The draw at Southampton on Tuesday, like the stalemate against Everton just before Christmas, was a game where the manager knew the performance was only worth a point but was still disappointed not to take more.
Gerard Deulofeu’s late equaliser for the Toffees on December 8 is the only goal Arsenal have conceded at Emirates since October. The manager has been saying with conviction that Emirates Stadium will “decide the season” and, he argues, the home support have been an asset at key times.
“The crowd is on our side much more this season,” he said. “Against Fulham, for example, it took us a while to get into the game and, last year, the fans would have been impatient. This year they were much more patient. Look at the Cardiff game as well; we had to wait until the last two minutes to win the game.”
Sunday could be a similar scenario.
The only team to have achieved more Premier League clean-sheets than Palace since Pulis took over is the one they face this weekend. However the south London side have only scored five times on the road this term and never more than once in a single game.
Since that success at Selhurst Park in late October, Palace have won six Premier League games – five of them 1-0. They’ll be stealing a well-worn Arsenal song soon.
"It’s an even bigger target and scalp for us to get in front of [Manchester City.] It would be absolutely fantastic and I think we can do it."
The visitors arrive two places outside the relegation zone and hopeful of a win that would catapult them up to 11th in a tightly-packed relegation battle.
Transfer deadline signings Wayne Hennessey and Jason Puncheon are available. But Thomas Ince, Joe Ledley and Scott Dann were not acquired in time.
The home side would return to the top with a victory on Sunday. Then they would be able to watch their two closest rivals – Manchester City and Chelsea - battle it out on Monday. The lighter of the two blues are in fashion right now after sweeping aside Tottenham 5-1 in midweek to overtake Arsenal. While appreciating the quality of Pellegrini’s side, you sense Wenger does not mind being the underdog once more.
“They are the team of the moment so everybody goes to definite conclusions,” he said. “I don’t deny their strength, quality and the exceptional players they have.
“But let’s not forget they have lost four away games. So they must have some vulnerability. And on the fixture front, they have more difficult one than us.
“But they are the favourites. I agree with that at the moment. You cannot say that a team that scores over 100 goals has no quality.
“But it’s an even bigger target and scalp for us to get in front of them. It would be absolutely fantastic and I think we can do it.”
Despite the overhype of those big games – including the ones just over the horizon - you get the feeling victory in fixtures like this are essential if Wenger is to achieve his ambition.
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