The difference between efficiency and complacency for Arsenal was just three inches. Glenn Murray, with the final action of this curious match, crashed a header against the foot of the post. Had he scored – and he should have done – Arsenal would have drawn a game which they led for 83 minutes.
Murray had bundled in a goal for Palace two minutes from the end, with Arsenal 2-0 ahead and cruising into third place. Had they drawn this game it would have been an absurd throwaway, a shameful waste of points from a comfortable position.
Arsenal did not play spectacularly well, but took their two first-half chances and were then happy to sit on their lead.
It felt then, with five minutes left, like this was the perfect drama-free display from a side who host Monaco in the Champions League last-16 on Wednesday night. But, in the final minutes, the players looked like they were busy thinking about that game under lights, at the cost of this particular match.
“Certainly they thought it is done,” admitted Arsène Wenger afterwards, relieved that his team’s laxness had not been fully punished. “We know in the Premier League it is never done, especially at 2-0. With that ball on the post we were a bit fortunate.”
Despite the frantic conclusion, Wenger was impressed by a performance which was, for 85 minutes, professional and focused. “It was about fighting and playing,” he said. “Palace is a team with big intensity, for us it was important to resist and try to play. We did that well.”
Alan Pardew was even more impressed with his team than Wenger was with his own. Palace had thrown everything they had at Arsenal but, for the first hour, suffered from insufficient quality. With no Marouane Chamakh, there was too much haste and not enough class about Palace. Only with two substitutions did Pardew change the game.
Yannick Bolasie replaced Fraizer Campbell early in the second half – with Arsenal 2-0 up – and started to cause Calum Chambers problems. But it was when Murray came on, with 12 minutes left, that Palace fought back.
His first goal was stabbed in after Wilfried Zaha’s shot had bounced off Murray, and when he got on the end of Pape Souare’s stoppage-time cross he should have equalised.
“We took the decision to take the game to Arsenal today,” Pardew said. “That was probably the best we have played since I have been manager. But it wasn’t to be. Sometimes that happens.” The frustration for Pardew was that this lively performance started with a mistake. All it took for Arsenal to go ahead was for Souare to mis-control a pass with a heavy touch. Danny Welbeck stole the ball and bounded away.
In trying to recover, Souare tripped Welbeck on the line of the penalty area. Mark Clattenburg awarded the penalty and Santi Cazorla disguised his kick into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal.
Inspired by the crowd and their sense of injustice, Crystal Palace threw everything they had at Arsenal. They played briskly, if without subtlety, running into a defensive performance that for 85 minutes was impressively solid.
The visitors were happy to sit back and play on the break, and their second goal, just before half-time, gave them the margin they needed. Alexis Sanchez picked out a clever run from Welbeck, who Pardew said was offside. Welbeck shot straight at Julian Speroni and Olivier Giroud knocked the rebound into the net.
The 2-0 lead reflected Arsenal’s efficiency, if not the flow of the game, and the second half looked like continuing in the same way. Arsenal had a good chance on the break – Sanchez shooting just wide after Özil put him through – but after that they were only defending.
Palace did not look like breaking through until Bolasie came on, and then Murray after him. Had those two played for longer the result might have been different.
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1) Speroni; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Souare; Puncheon, Ledley (Ameobi, 78); Zaha, Mutch, Gayle (Murray, 78); Campbell (Bolasie, 55).
Arsenal (4-2-3-1) Ospina; Chambers, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Cazorla; Welbeck (Gibbs, 75), Özil (Rosicky, 75), Sanchez (Gabriel, 89); Giroud.
Referee: Mark Clattenberg
Man of the match: Puncheon (Crystal Palace)
Match rating: 6/10