30 December 2016

From Pulis to Pardew to this plonker, is Palace takin' the piss?

Arsenal have staggered towards the New Year with all of the aplomb and grace of a over-served reveler, losing twice by 2-1 scorelines before finally finding a way past West Brom's parked bus in the waning minutes—long gone, it seems, is the swagger that saw us go undefeated across 20 previous matches (sorry, League Cup; in fairness, though, I also overlooked two wins in the competition to prove my point). Then again, the Baggies' visit opened a string of fixtures from which we simply must and really should take all the points on offer. Enter Crystal Palace.

The sacking of Alan Pardew and subsequent hiring of Sam Allardyce might just set Crystal Palace atop the list of clubs who have hired managers most likely to irritate Arsène. Sandwiched somewhere in there is Tony Pulis, and while none of them quite rises to Mourinhoian levels, there's something to be said for the accumulative effect. Allardyce is at least affable to some degree or another, but his hiring does ring alarm-bells regarding physicality and a certain hoofing-forward of balls. With Christian Benteke (8 goals) up-top, those alarm-bells can't be simply snooz-buttoned away. Benteke has had a few moments to remember against Arsenal in the past.

With the Eagles just two points above the relegation-fray, they have shown a bit more fight in recent weeks, losing narrowly at home to Man U (1-2) and Chelsea (0-1). There's also likely to a be a bit of a bounce from the new manager, whoever he may be. At the other end of things, injuries and suspensions may blunt that enthusiasm; Damian Delaney will serve a one-match suspension, and Joe Ledley and James McArthur face late fitness tests after coming off with injuries against Watford. Allardyce will have to some shuffling along the back-line—raising the prospect of us facing the always-fiesty Mathieu Flamini.

At our end, we still do have important questions to answer. We've slowed down of late, which would be less of a concern if our rivals were suffering the same. However, each of them has taken maximum points in recent weeks, with Man U and Chelsea showing frightening form. Were it not for Man U's early malaise, they'd be right in the mix instead of nipping at our heels. After scoring 12 goals in three matches to start the month, we've managed just three in the ensuing three. While Palace are presently relegation-fodder, we cannot risk underestimating them—not if we're serious about contending.

With that in mind, I turn my hopes to Olivier Giroud. Yes, his goal against West Brom once again reminds us of how vital he can be as a "super-sub" coming on late against rubber-legged defenders. Against Palace, though, his presence up-top would give our offense the kind of structure and physicality it will need against Allardyce's set-up; he will also offer a useful balance against Benteke should Palace earn set-pieces. Giroud has scored four goals in just 260 minutes of Prem action. Yes, coming on as a sub gives him an advantage, but those fresh legs and chiseled muscles seem far less weary, jaded, or enervated than those of many others in the squad.

LAST 3
Arsenal 1-1 Crystal Palace (17.04.2016)
Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal (16.08.2015)
Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal (21.02.2015)

FACTFILE
Arsenal first faced Palace on 1 November 1969, a 1-5 win to the Arsenal.
Arsenal have not lost to Palace in 13 matches across all competitions (01.10.1994).
Crystal Palace have failed to win in 11 of their last 12 Prem matches.

INJURIES
Mertesacker, Cazorla and Debuchy are out. Mustafi and Welbeck have returned to fitness but are unlikely to be available. Walcott and Gibbs face late fitness tests.

POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Čech; Monreal, Koscielny, Gabriel, Bellerín; Coquelin, Ramsey;  Alexis, Özil, Iwobi; Giroud.

PREDICTION
Despite Allardyce's reputation for Neanderthalic football, expect Arsenal to return to early-December form.
Arsenal 3-0 Crystal Palace