Thursday, February 6, 2014

Arsenal 2 Crystal Palace 0

At the Rendezvous bar, the biggest pre-match talking point was Arsenal's transfer activity. BBC had just revealed that Arsenal's only signing in the January window had already been injured. On the previous day, Swedish media reported that Kim Kalltrom had hurt his back during his first training session at London Colney and the injury would likely keep him on the sidelines for two to three months. However, according to Sky Sports, the north London club were quick to play down the severity of the injury by stating that a "slight" injury ruled out the Sweden international for the Crystal Palace game. We mourned our luck. It's typical that an Arsenal player gets injured before he even plays his first game. In fact, Kallstrom didn't attended training at all as he fell on his back while playing football on a beach in Spartak Moscow's pre-season tour in Abu Dhabi two days before he joined Arsenal on loan. Arsenal medical team were aware that the Swedish midfielder had a micro-fracture in the vertebra, but the club decided to go ahead with the loan deal, with Kallstrom to undergo rehabilitation with the north London club. He was meant to be a short-term cover during Flamini's suspension and the lay-offs of Wilshere and Ramsey. The Swede is now set to miss 6 games in February at least, which means that even Ramsey, who is thought to be the longest absentee of the three, could be back before Kallstrom becomes fit. If the temporary cover is sidelined for a longer period than the players he was supposed to be covering, what is the point of signing a 31-year-old midfielder on loan?

We were all furious about the farce surrounding our only January signing. On the other hand, our reaction to the much-rumoured Julian Draxler deal was rather mixed. It would have given a huge morale boost to Arsenal's title aspiration, if it had materialised, especially, after losing Theo Walcott to a long-term injury and Ramsey's return delayed for further 4-6 weeks. However, £37.8 million (or as much as £40 million according to some newspaper reports) is a huge price tag for an unproven, cup-tied 20 year-old winger/attacking midfielder, no matter how talented he may be. Some fans call it an "investment", but perhaps it is more appropriate to call it a "gamble". In light of the fact that Juan Mata, a Premier-League proven 25-year-old Spain international, cost Manchester United £37.1 million, the price of signing Julian Draxler is hard to justify. We were not as deluded as a section of the fans to believe any world-class striker would be available in the January transfer window. Clubs do not let their best players leave when they are pushing for domestic titles or the Champions League. All the same, the lack of January signings left us supporters deeply disappointed.

Arsenal went into the game as favourites, but with the negativity surrounding the Club's unsuccessful January transfer activity, we were not as optimistic as bookmakers or pundits. Crystal Palace were a well-organised side under Tony Pulis, not shipping many goals. In fact, all the stats comparing pre-Pulis and post-Pulis were a bit scary. Prior to the game, Wenger praised the home crowd for their newly found patience, but we feared that if Arsenal did not come out of the blocks, the crowd might be quick to get on their back amid their discontent with the transfer business. The situation reminded us of the Aston Villa game on the opening day at the Emirates, but the difference was that the transfer window is firmly shut this time. Also, this weekend saw a number of shock results, including Man U beaten by Stoke 2-1, Newcastle thrashed at home in the Tyne-Wear derby, and Tottenham and Liverpool held by relegation-threatened Hull City and West Brom, respectively. One more upset would have hardly raised an eyebrow.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that started in a 2-2 draw with Southampton on Tuesday night. As Flamini started his three-match suspension from this game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started alongside Mikel Arteta in central midfield. Lukas Podoski replaced his compatriot, Serge Gnabry, on the left wing. Santi Cazorla was moved from the left to right flank. Tomas Rosicky was fit again, recovering from a broken nose, but only to make the bench. We expected Gibbs to get the nod for this game after Monreal's disappointing display against Southampton, but Gibbs started from the bench. Wenger explained his selection in his post-match press conference by stating that he did not want to gamble on Gibbs' fitness after they had had some concern about the recurrence of the England left-back's calf problem. Mysteriously, there was no sign of the club captain, Thomas Vermaelen, not even on the bench. The Belgian centre-back made a return to the bench on Tuesday night after missing three games through a knee injury he sustained four weeks ago. According to Belgian sources, Vermaelen suffered a setback in training last week, picking up a slight calf strain. Instead, Gedion Zelalem, who has just turned 17, filled the bench.

Arsenal struggled to break down Palace's stubborn defence in the first half. Arsenal tried to play their football, but they were predictable and lacked penetration. After Özil's lofted pass found Monreal in the left-hand channel in the 3rd minute only for Speroni to block Monreal's attempt, Arsenal's best chances were limited to dead-ball situations. It was difficult to find space in well-organised Palace defence.

A breakthrough came within two minutes from the restart though the Ox's well-taken goal. A 73rd-minute goal from the same goal-scorer gave us some breathing space.  Both goals came from quick build-up play and the Ox's excellent run through the line, not from intricate passes in and around the box. Palace continued to press, but the Gunners saw out another 2-0 home victory with ease.

It was not a vintage performance from an Arsenal side by any means, but it was an important win after the disappointing 2-2 draw in midweek. Amid all the negativity ahead of the match, anything less than a win would have severely hurt the fans' sentiments and the players' belief. The Ox's return to his best and the testimony of his rich promise as a box-to-box player were the bright spots of the game, lifting the supporters' mood. Pundits used well-worn Arsene Wenber's expression, "just like a new signing", but seriously, the Ox's rise gave us something to get excited about. A 20-year-old steps up and fills in for injured key players and a new signing (!). He still has massive room for improvement as a central midfielder, but when Wilshere comes back (as early as this weekend if Wenger's prognosis is right), the Ox will certainly give the boss something to think about.

After the match, Wenger revealed the truth about the signing of Kim Kallstrom. Basically, As they found out the extent of his injury with only 6 hours left before the deadline, it was the Swede or nothing, so the Frenchman took the injured midfielder in case we might need a player in March or April, considering the alarming rate at which Arsenal midfielders have been getting injured. You may blame Wenger for leaving the deal so late, but we had an abundant choice of central midfielders till Tuesday night when Flamini was shown a red card and Ramsey had had an injury setback on the previous day. Good news is that it was a free loan and Spartark Moscow will pay his wages while he is injured. Even if Kallstrom might never play for Arsenal, as Wenger admitted, the deal wouldn't be disastrous for Arsenal. It is time for us to move on from the January transfer and concentrate on what we have at the moment.

The three points saw Arsenal move back to the top of the league and as a result of Man City's defeat to Chelsea on Monday night, we are now two points clear of Man City and Chelsea at the top of the table. With no midweek game this week in the Premier League, we will stay top until Saturday afternoon at least. A tough run of fixtures starts this weekend with a trip to Anfield.

Players rating

Szczesny 7
Made two brave saves. His decision and timing was spot-on, when Chamakh made a run at goal. It reminded us of the horrible mix-up between the Pole and Koscielny in the Carling Cup final 3 years ago, but this time Koscielny was calmer and fully trusted his keeper. 

Sagna: 7
After a goal-scoring chance in the first half, he was quieter than usual on the attacking front, but reliable defensive display.

Mertesacker: 7
Put in some great tackles.

Koscielny: 7

Solid display.

Monreal: 7
Unlucky not to score. Posed a constant attacking threat on the left flank.

Arteta: 7

Back to his usual self as the hub of the team. Made a whopping 127 passes with an impressive 96% success rate, with 2 key passes. Made 6 tackles. He should have had a shot himself rather than passing to Poldi, though. He ended the game limping. Hopefully, he will recover from the knock in time for the next game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Showed real improvement in this game (even between the two halves) and put in a-man-of-the-match performance. He made a great run into the box, took a touch with his right foot to control Cazorola's lofted pass and chipped Speroni with left foot for his first goal of the season. The second goal was also well taken following a neat one-two with Giroud. We love the Ox's direct style of play. He had 4 shots, of which 2 ended up at the back of the net. He was obviously suffering from cramp towards the end of the game, but it was great to see him complete a full 90 minutes for the first time this season. Welcome back, "the Ox in the Box"!

Cazorla: 7

Set up the first goal for the Ox through a shrewd pass to go over the Palace defenders after making space for himself with a couple of step-overs and picking up the Ox.

Özil: 7

Created an early chance through a lofted pass to release Monreal behind Palace defence. His floated 25-yard free-kick also gave Koscielny a chance to flick into the Palace net, which was brilliantly saved by Speroni. Made more key passes (3) than any other player on the pitch.

Podolski: 6

Lively and was a threat, but did not live up to our expectations. Missed two half decent chances.

Giroud: 7
Set up the Ox's second goal through a neat one-two while holding back the defender. His hold-up play was good and he was mobile to link up with his team-mate. It is mystery how the ref, Jon Moss, missed him being held firmly down by Jedinak when an Arsenal corner was taken. It should have been a blatant penalty.



Rosicky: 6
72nd-minute substitute for Podolski. Made an immediate impact by initiating the fluent move leading to the Ox's second goal. Great to have him back. His collision with the Ox in the face worried us enormously, but his nose seemed to be OK. Hopefully, he will be fit to start soon.

Gibbs: 5
84th-minute substitution to replace 
Özil. Little impact.

Bendtner: 5
Replaced Giroud in the 84th minute. With only 3 touches made, he wasn't involved.

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