By Nik Brumsack at Selhurst Park
Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud struck to give Arsenal a 2-1 victory over a hardworking Crystal Palace side at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
Cazorla gave the Gunners an early lead when he converted from the spot after Danny Welbeck was brought down by Pape Souare. The foul looked to have been made right on the edge of the area but the referee pointed to the spot and the Spaniard converted with consummate ease.
Right at the end of a committed first 45 minutes, Giroud struck his 50th Arsenal goal, reacting first to stab home after Julian Speroni failed to hold Welbeck’s scuffed shot.
While the first half was low on clear opportunities, the second was anything but.
Palace fought back hard after the break and were given late hope when Glenn Murray struck from close range four minutes into stoppage time. He could have secured an unlikely point seconds later but headed against the post with the goal gaping.
Despite that, Arsène Wenger’s men are in superb form - this was their 10th win since Boxing Day and, as a result of Manchester United’s defeat at Swansea City, was one that cemented a place in the top four for the first time this year.
Job done, and the perfect tonic ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League match against AS Monaco.
SETTING THE SCENE
The big news pre-match centred around Jack Wilshere’s return to the Arsenal squad, some three months since he injured his ankle against Manchester United at Emirates Stadium.
Wilshere took his place among the substitutes as Wenger made four changes to the side that had advanced serenely to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup last weekend.
David Ospina returned in goal, there was a place in central defence for Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal replaced Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin came in for Mathieu Flamini - absent with a slight hamstring problem.
Giroud, who maintained his fine goalscoring form with a brace against Middlesbrough last weekend, continued up front.
The hosts too had been in FA Cup action - taking the lead against Liverpool before eventually losing 2-1.
Alan Pardew was forced to do without Yaya Sanogo here, ineligible to play against his parent club, while former Arsenal forward Marouane Chamakh also missed out due to a hamstring injury.
Club captain Mile Jedinak returned to the bench after injury, with Brede Hangeland, who scored against Arsenal on the opening day, also among the substitutes.
The Gunners came into the match in good recent form against Palace. Wenger’s side had not lost to their hosts since 1994, and were unbeaten in their last 11 trips to Selhurst Park.
After a committed but quiet start, the game burst into life after eight minutes. There seemed to be no danger when Souare - making his Premier League debut - received the ball just outside his own penalty area. The defender elected not to clear, dithered on the ball and was dispossessed by Welbeck, who was then brought down as the defender tried to atone for his mistake.
The offence looked to take place right on the edge of the area but, after consulting with his linesman, Mark Clattenburg awarded a penalty. Cazorla made no mistake from the spot, sending Julian Speroni the wrong way.
Arsenal are turning into the masters of the fast start - this was the ninth successive game in which Wenger’s side have scored during the first half hour.
Palace initially responded well without forcing a clear opportunity, with the lively Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon sending over a series of testing crosses into the Arsenal area.
Jordon Mutch and Coquelin each a yellow card as the game became ever more scrappy before Alexis and Dwight Gayle both saw goalbound shots deflected clear.
Then, with half-time approaching, Giroud doubled the lead. Alexis was the instigator, threading a perfectly-weighted ball to Welbeck. The forward advanced at goal and, though Speroni held his initial effort, was powerless to stop Giroud from converting the rebound.
The hosts began the second half with a fresh sense of urgency. Zaha saw one effort well blocked by Monreal before Giroud deflected a testing low cross behind.
For all of Palace’s intent, it was Arsenal that continued to create the better chances, with Mesut Ozil’s header from Alexis’ centre flicking the crossbar on its way over.
Palace continued to come forward, Arsenal continued to repel their efforts - Cazorla and Ozil both in the right place to alleviate dangerous opportunities.
Where the first half was tight and committed, the second was understandably a much more open affair. Just before the hour mark, Arsenal should have settled proceedings on the counter. Ozil was the creator, keeping the ball well before slipping Alexis through on goal. The Chilean raced clear but could only flick his effort agonisingly wide.
The match continued at a frantic pace. Giroud saw a shot deflected into Speroni’s arms at one end, Monreal blocked away a close-range Zaha shot at the other.
Arsenal had largely weathered the storm but were given a reminder of Palace’s attacking intent when Gayle headed Souare’s cross just over.
For all the hosts’ attacking endeavour, Ospina remained largely untroubled throughout, though he would have struggled to reach a Puncheon free-kick that whistled just past the post.
Wenger introduced Tomas Rosicky and Gibbs in the closing stages as Palace began to tire. The home side kept going though and scored a deserved goal when Murray stabbed home from close range. He so nearly grabbed a point with the last action of the game but could only head against the post from inside the six-yard box.
A crazy 90 seconds had almost undone all of Arsenal’s good work, but they held on. Just.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
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