Gunners lucky to scrape out a win and climb to 3rd on the day
Phew. That one was about as unpleasant a win as I've been around in a bit. Throughout the match, it seemed like only a matter of time before Zaha would (a) find his way past Monreal, (b) earn a penalty, or (c) get Monreal sent off, if not some combination of the aforementioned. Ironically, the first goal came after Clattenburg ignored a penalty shout from Palace and on the ensuing counter, Welbeck was brought down by Soaré just inside the area, and Cazorla coolly converted the penalty to make it 1-0, very much against the run of play.
Just before halftime, Giroud added a second during a scramble after Speroni spilled Welbeck's shot—our 13th goal scored in extra time to date. A 0-2 lead has rarely felt as fortunate as this one. However, it's three points banked on what's looking like a great weekend.
Elsewhere, Chelsea saw Nemanja Mati? sent off after reacting furiously to an ugly tackle from Burnley's Ashley Barnes and was sent off for shoving Barnes in retaliation. By rights, it should have been Barnes who saw red after his cleats flexed Mati?'s leg in what could have been a career-ending injury. As it stands, Mati? was sent off, reducing Chelsea to ten men and opening the door for Burnley to equalise. So it goes.
Elsewhere, Swansea defeated Manchester United thanks to a splendid goal from Gomis, clearing the way for us to climb to third place for now. Southampton hosts Liverpool on Sunday with a chance to leap-frog us, but the proof will be in the pudding—be it tomorrow or mid-May.
Back to our own match, we're indeed fortunate to have come away with all three points, whether we're looking at the run of play throughout the match or the final few minutes during which Palace mounted a furious, last-gasp fightback. Time and time again, the Eagles found Zaha on the wing in order to exploit his pace against the slower Monreal, and it's a wonder that Monreal was never booked for his misdeeds. Then again, it seemed as if the groundskeepers at Selhurst had seen fit to overwater the pitch in order to create sloppier conditions; the players were sliding around like giraffes wearing rollerskates at a roller-rink covered by ball-bearings coated in extra virgin olive oil.
Compounding matters, Palace's players arrived more than ready to play. I'd love to say that we hewed to a recent strategy of sitting back to absorb a bit of pressure, inviting our opponents forward in order to hit them on counters, but it rarely if ever felt like that. Instead, it felt like the Eagles were pushing us deeper and deeper into our own third. If it wasn't Zaha making mincemeat of Monreal, it was any number of our own players making a meal of clearing the ball.
It was apparent that Palace's strategy was to harass and bully Cazorla, Alexis, and Özil, knocking them off the ball or swarming them until they were dispossessed or passed off to a less-threatening teammate, and we struggled to find any semblance of control or order despite seizing the early lead. Were it not for some truly atrocious finishing and set-piece delivery from Palace, we might have found ourselves on the wrong end of things.
It's not as Ospina offered many reassurances, either. True, he made a few saves, but he also went full-Almunia all too many times, at one point vaulting over Mertesacker in order to head the ball clear—outside the 18. For as meek as Mertesacker can often be in the air, this was one foray too far for the keeper. Perhaps then it's fitting that he didn't get to keep a clean-sheet in the end, what with Murray pulling one back in stoppage-time—and hitting the post moments later.
We'll have to do better than this going forward, even if we did find a way to win. Coquelin saw yellow for the fifth time this season and was lucky not to get sent off after kung-fu kicking a Palace defender early on. Opponents have seen that, for as effective as Cazorla can be in a withdrawn role, he's easy to bully. Without Gibbs or Bellerín, we're worryingly susceptible when opponents can attack with pace down the flanks.
In brighter news, Giroud scored his 50th goal for the club, the 48th player to do so, and he did it in fewer matches than the dreaded Didier Drogba—for what that's worth. It took Droga 112 matches over three seasons; Giroud, 116. We'll have to take a closer look at Giroud at another time.
For now, let's set aside the details and look at the bigger picture. We're gathering strength, whether it be through players returning from injury or the squad finding a deeper resolve and newer philosophy. Gabriel found his way onto the pitch again and looked comfortable; Wilshere made it as far as the bench, and others will soon join the fray as well. It's good enough to see us climb to third, and perhaps we'll still be there when Sunday's dust settles...