Sunday, 2 February 2014

Arsenal v Crystal Palace Preview

Arsenal could only manage a rather fortunate 2-2 draw at Southampton on Tuesday night and now find themselves a point off the summit of the Premier League. A point is hardly an unassailable lead but the form City are in at the moment has made some say the title is theirs already. I've seen so called experts hand out the plaudits to teams with 10 point leads at a later stage in the season only to see them blow it and it's by no means time for Arsenal to start playing for second place. 

Don't forget City still have to go to Arsenal, United, Liverpool and Everton and those teams won't be as easy to beat as second rate no hopers like Spurs. Of course Arsenal have some tough games themselves and those games start coming hot and heavy from next week. For now though all they can do is concentrate on the job in hand and make sure they take the three points against Palace today.

Palace didn't look good enough to me at the start of the season to stay in the league, but they have been transformed since the arrival of Tony Pulis. They have won six of their last 12 league games and find themselves one point clear of the relegation zone after yesterday's games. The way they're playing at the moment they will comfortably survive this season and that will be an achievement for them.

Despite their good run they have still lost nine of their 11 away games and they're the lowest scorers away from home with only five goals in those 11 games. They had good performances away to both City and Spurs recently but lost both times because of their lack of firepower. I have no doubt they will scrap for every ball today, but Arsenal have the best defensive record at home in the league and should expect to keep a clean sheet.

In team news Tomas Rosicky should be fit to return to the squad which is a timely boost with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere injured and Mathieu Flamini injured. Arsenal have a very strong midfield but Ramsey will be sorely missed over the next six weeks until he returns. Wilshere should be available for selection away to Liverpool next week with his injury prognosis an awful lot better than Ransey's.

In bizarre circumstances Arsenal have brought Kim Kallstrom in on the final day of the transfer window, but he is apparently injured for the next six games. If he was signed as midfield cover it's baffling to think the club signed him knowing he was injured. They need midfield cover right away because of the current injury and suspension situation, but Kallstrom won't be available to play until March it would seem. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see Kieran Gibbs return at left back after Nacho Monreal made a few errors against Southampton. I'm not sure which of them is the better option in that position, but Gibbs will want to go to the World Cup with England and to do so he will need to impress for the rest of the season. He has always had his injury problems and it seems every time he looks like keeping the position for good he picks up another knock.

In midfield Mikael Arteta will have to play the anchor role and it's important he sets a good pace from the off. The first half display against Southampton simply wasn't good enough, but Arsenal have been lacklustre in the first half quite often this season. I would imagine Rosicky will come straight into the team to play with Mesut Ozil in front of Arteta.

Rosicky adds a lot of energy and drive when he plays and they were missing far too often from others on Tuesday night. Ozil had an excellent second half in that game and it's a joy to see him glide gracefully goalwards with the ball at his feet dropping his shoulder to fool opponents. I still think there's an awful lot more to come from him and hopefully he can show what he's made of in the coming weeks.

I would expect the same attacking trio which started against Southampton to play again, but there is always the possibility of either Lukas Podolski or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coming in for Serge Gnabry. Santi Cazorla has to be a certain starter though with his form being so good and his goals so important in recent weeks. It's taken a while this season, but he's finally making the same contribution which was  so important to the team last season.

As always Arsenal will have to look out for their ex player in the Palace ranks and I'm sure Marouane Chamakh would love to put one past his old club. Besides him Jason Puncheon has been in very good form recently ever since he made a complete mess of a penalty against Spurs. They will of course be dangerous from set pieces and very organised in defence as any team under Pulis' control would be. Arsenal will have to concentrate on their defensive duties fully at times, but they should have loads of possession from start to finish.

Since Pulis took over Palace have been a lot tighter at the back and have only conceded 10 goals in their last 13 games. They have kept seven clean sheets in those games as well and have conceded less goals than sixth placed Spurs so far this season. It's highly unlikely that Arsenal will put a hatful of goals past Palace today, but they have to make sure they win the game.

Anything other than a win would be a disaster with points on the board needed ahead of league games against Liverpool and United. With City playing Chelsea tomorrow night there will be points dropped by one or both of the teams at the top of the table with Arsenal and Arsenal could well see themselves back on top of the league before those two big games. They need to come out of the traps from the start and put Palace under the cosh to make sure they take those three points.

I think Arsenal are going to do just that and get the goals they need to go to the top of the table for the moment at least. After that it's down to what happens between the other two teams tomorrow night and it would be great to go to Liverpool next Saturday as league leaders. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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