What a difference a change of manager can make; which is presumably why it happens so often. On Friday night, after Tony Mowbray’s dismissal, Middlesbrough went out under coach Mark Venus and thumped Doncaster Rovers 4-0. Ian Holloway did not wait to be pushed at Crystal Palace, handing over to his assistant Keith Millen, who shook up the team with six changes and was rewarded with the spirit and tenacity that Holloway had felt was lacking.
It was a performance well received by the home crowd, even if the result of their dreams against the League leaders did not materialise. At the interval, having survived and then settled, Palace still had hopes of at least a rare point, and despite Mikel Arteta scoring a penalty right at the start of the second half, there was renewed belief when the same player was harshly sent off with 25 minutes to play.
Instead, Wojciech Szczesny denied them with a couple of good saves and on the break Aaron Ramsey set up Olivier Giroud for a match-clinching second goal. Earlier Arsenal seemed to feel they could stroll through as they wished, and by half-time it was a surprise how few genuine opportunities they had created. Palace initially allowed them far too much room and looked like the away team before suddenly realising that they were taking part in the same game.
Mesut Özil, apparently suffering from a virus in midweek, was possibly not over it and that familiar tendency to make not one, but three passes too many manifested itself again in the apparent belief that goals would come by some sort of osmosis.
Arsène Wenger felt, reasonably enough, that Arteta should not have been sent off – it was difficult to see a foul on the former Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh 45 yards from goal as “an obvious goalscoring opportunity”. “The referee got that wrong.” said Wenger, “He [Chamakh] was far from goal and it was an accidental foul. Maybe we were not at our sharpest, but we were mature and organised and Szczesny made two good saves.”
As for being top of the table at this stage: “It’s a good feeling without any massive significance. We always had a high level of aspirations and the only thing we can do is win our games.”
Palace’s aspirations are very different and may well still be beyond them, whoever takes over. Tony Pulis remains the favourite, even if he is likely to introduce a more rudimentary style. He would certainly find, on yesterday’s showing, the sort of attitude that he likes. Millen appreciated it, saying: “I was very proud to be in charge and even prouder of the players’ performance. The best thing is we’ve got something to build on. It’s difficult when you’ve lost as many as we have, but the reaction to going one-nil down so early in the second half was terrific.”
They will need to dispense with the inferiority complex afflicting them for half an hour yesterday. But if there was initially a sense of inevitability about proceedings, Arsenal allowed themselves to be seduced by the idea.
Losing Mathieu Flamini with a groin strain early on did not seem a concern, Serge Gnabry coming on down the right and Aaron Ramsey dropping deeper, at a time when Palace fans were reduced to cheering throw-ins.
The home centre-half Damien Delaney got away with two possible penalties, but not until late in the half did Julian Speroni need to make a save, from Ramsey.
It was to be expected that Arsenal came out more vigorously and despite being warned about that by Millen, Palace immediately conceded a clear penalty for Adlène Guedioura’s trip on Gnabry that Arteta converted. The picture changed when Chris Foy sent the Arsenal captain off for no more than a tussle with Chamakh, after which Szczesny fingertipped Joel Ward’s shot onto the bar and then saved well from Mile Jedinak’s controlled volley at the subsequent corner.
Palace were still hoping against hope when Giroud fed Ramsey, lost his marker and ran on to head in the Welshman’s perfectly placed cross.
Crystal Palace (4-4-1-1): Speroni; Ward, Delaney, Gabbidon, Moxey; Bannan (Gayle, 77), Jedinak, Dikgacoi, Thomas (Bolasie, 88); Guedioura (Kébé, 79); Chamakh.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Flamini (Wilshere, 8); Ramsey, Cazorla (Monreal, 72), Özil; Giroud.
Referee: Chris Foy.
Man of the match: Ramsey (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10