A patchy performance at Crystal Palace saw us extend our winning run to four consecutive games and leave us with an outside chance of securing the blessing/curse (delete as applicable) of a place in the new third tier of European competition.
A small number of home fans were allowed into the stadium and they made plenty of noise, not least because this was the last home game for manager Roy Hodgson before his retirement. That particular bond between manager and club is a strong one given that Roy supported Palace when he was a lad.
As LBG described in yesterday’s Post, Roy has been one of the most decent men in football, equally gracious in victory or defeat.
But there’s no place for sentiment once the ref blows the whistle and it was pleasing to see Arsenal play well enough to grab all three points.
We were wearing our new yellow away kit for the first time, about which I have this to say: the shirts are great (and are a nod to our 1971 Double-winning season) but they just don’t work without the dark blue shorts. Having shirts, shorts and socks all in the same shade of yellow made us look like a bunch of agitated bananas.
Palace under Hodgson have become a reliable mid-table team, always well-drilled and well organised, and they have had some success against us in recent years including a 3-0 thumping in 2017 towards the end of Arsene’s Wenger’s reign (a dismal evening fixture at which I had the misfortune to be present).
However, we have been on a generally upward curve since Boxing Day despite some supporters’ bewildering refusal to recognise the fact (if you compile a league table based only on results since Christmas we are third) so it was no real surprise that we came away with the win.
We showed plenty of good movement early on with Smith Rowe and Saka working well together and with Pepe having some success down our right flank. Clear-cut chances were few and once Palace settled down they posed a threat, particularly from set pieces and high balls into the box.
We took the lead in the 36th minute. Tierney and Saka worked a give-and-go down our left side, including an audacious back heel from Saka from which the Scot put in a perfect cross for Pepe to volley home with his weaker (right) foot. At half time we went in one up and looking comfortable.
Remembering the occasion, the Palace players showed a lot more determination in the second half, clearly hoping to get a result that would send Woy off happy into his sunset years. Leno was called on to make several smart saves (his recent form has been excellent) and we seemed to lose our way, particularly in midfield.
The Palace equaliser came in the 62nd minute when Benteke got in front of our defenders to powerfully head home a free kick from the edge of the six yard box. There were suspicions of a foul on Elneny and of a possible offside, but the VAR lottery came up trumps for Palace on this occasion and the goal stood.
Knowing we needed a win to maintain any hope of European football you would have expected some real urgency from the Arsenal players, but it was slow to emerge.
Immediately after the equaliser the tiring Saka was replaced with Odegaard, who probed consistently from the central attacking midfield position without ever being able to make anything happen. We seemed to have run out of ideas.
Arteta threw Martinelli into the fray on 77 minutes and the two substitutions finally paid off as we entered stoppage time. Odegaard pinged in a clever diagonal cross from the right that invited Martinelli to attack the ball. He got there marginally ahead of the defender and improvised to move it across goal off his thigh before slotting home.
Then in the final added minute (the 95th of the game) Pepe scored a terrific individual effort, cutting in from the left, bamboozling three defenders and tucking the ball home inside the far post.
In the end a comfortable win, but one that was not without its frustrating periods for us Gunners.
Now it’s all down to the final day where, if we beat Brighton and both Spuds and Everton fail to win, we will finish in seventh place and can start looking forward to some big European night games in Montenegro and Macedonia.
Such an outcome would not be to everyone’s taste, but surely we’d all be happy with a final day celebration of St Totteringham’s Day, right?
Leno – 8
Made some top saves and continued his excellent form. He seems to have settled down with his passing out from the back as well and we were seldom troubled despite Palace’s occasional high press.
Chambers – 7
Contributed well at both ends and continued his good run. Is he removing the need to enter the market for a RB this summer?
Holding – 7
Gabriel – 6.5
His ball use is still shaky at times and he might have done better with Benteke’s goal, but his strength and speed were important for us on the night.
Tierney – 7
Solid outing despite having the crowd on his back for most of the game. His involvement in the opening goal was of the highest quality.
Partey – 6.5
Generally did well, although he lost the ball a few too many times during Palace’s good spell in the second half.
Elneny – 6.5
Same as Partey.
Pepe – 8.5 (MoTM)
Two superbly taken goals. Nico pestered the Palace left back all night and linked up well with his team mates. He is making progress and should be providing 15+ goals for us next season.
Smith Rowe – 7
Good in the first half, faded a little in the second.
Saka – 7.5
Always looking to make something happen, always taking on defenders. That back heel that led to our opening goal was sensational.
Aubameyang – 6
Another mostly anonymous outing from the captain.
Odegaard – 7
Plays on the front foot and supplied the assist for our all-important second goal.
Martinelli – 7.5
His goal was all about determination and drive. It will do his confidence a world of good and I hope he gets some decent game time against Brighton.