Crystal Palace vs Arsenal match report: Special Alexis Sanchez inspires the Gunners

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The Independent Football

Why did Arsenal fail to show up for their first game of the season, given their new status as title challengers? How did they lose at home to West Ham United but then, today, beat a stronger Crystal Palace side away from home? More often than not, in football, the simple answer is the right one: Alexis Sanchez is back.

This was not peak Alexis Sanchez, the player who ripped through the Premier League in the first half of last season before taking Chile to this summer’s Copa America. But a rusty Alexis Sanchez is still a special player who can decide games, as he did here at Selhurst Park.

Sanchez only returned to pre-season training at Arsenal on 3 August, two weeks ago today. Wenger said on Friday morning that Sanchez had been working at home in Chile before then, allowing him to come back “reasonably fit”.

What this meant is that Arsenal did not quite have the benefit of Sanchez’s usual technical skill. He missed four real first half chances as Arsenal squandered the opportunity to kill the game before Crystal Palace could even get into it.

There is far more to Sanchez, though, than his touch and execution, as good as they are. He is also one of the Premier League’s fiercest and bravest competitors, a man described by Wenger last week as a “hyperactive guy” who can always be relied upon to give his full commitment to anything he tries.

 

This was the Sanchez who played for Arsenal today, with that voracious competitive appetite and that explosive physical power. This was the Sanchez who shredded Palace with his first half movement – even if he could not quite capitalise upon it – and who eventually won Arsenal the game.

It was 10 minutes into the second half, the teams were level at 1-1 and Connor Wickham had just hit the post. The noise and the momentum was all with Palace who were threatening to seize control of the game. Then Arsenal broke, Ramsey fed Hector Bellerin who stood a cross up to the far post. Joel Ward should have nodded it away but Sanchez bounded up and away from him and thumped a header towards goal. Damien Delaney, trying to clear it, sliced the ball into the net. As it happens, Sanchez’s header was going wide.

But that is the desire and the athleticism – independent of his skill – that sets Sanchez apart, and that won Arsenal the game.

“He brings drive forward, pressure on the opponent and goal chances,” Wenger explained afterwards. “When it was 1-1, it is not a coincidence that Sanchez found the header. It is a typical Sanchez goal, more desire than fitness. He is still a bit short. But he is a fighter.”

Wenger was delighted afterwards with a win that showcased enough aspects of the game – flowing football in the first half, dogged defence in the second – to almost make up for their non-performance at the Emirates last Sunday. This was not quite a complete performance, but there was a lot to admire about it, not least the seriousness and the focus it showed.

Arsenal began the game playing incisive football that was as far removed as imaginable from what happened against West Ham United. Mesut Ozil – who Wenger described as “absolutely magnificent” – broke forward and put Sanchez through, and with more match fitness he would surely have scored.

Undeterred, Arsenal kept pushing and scored an opening goal of remarkable quality. Sanchez found Ozil out on the left, and he drove a left-footed cross back into the box. Olivier Giroud, with his back to goal, jumped and unleashed an acrobatic overhead kick, beyond Alex McCarthy and into the far bottom corner of the net.

This was when Arsenal should have killed the game, with one-twos and flicks not quite coming off, and Sanchez having one low shot saved and mistiming another header over the bar. It was, therefore, immensely frustrating for the visitors when Joel Ward equalised out of the blue, striking a Connor Wickham knock-down into the bottom corner of Petr Cech’s goal from 25 yards out. Laurent Koscielny turned his back on the shot.

This was when Arsenal flirted with wilting and Francis Coquelin was certainly fortunate to complete the first half, having tripped Wilfried Zaha straight after he was booked for a similar foul on Yannick Bolasie. Palace came out strong in the second half, getting the ball wide early and often, with Yohan Cabaye directing play on his home debut. Had Wickham converted Zaha’s cross three minutes after the re-start it would have been a different game.

But Sanchez put Arsenal back into the lead – with help from Delaney – and from there Wenger’s side, to their manager’s pleasure – dug in to see out the win. Mikel Arteta, still on his way back from eight months out, came on for Sanchez and made one crucial intervention when Lee Chung-Yong was about to equalise.

Pardew had also thrown on Jordon Mutch, who missed Palace’s best late chance when the ball was flicked onto him before he could successfully direct his header. Ward, who scored Palace’s goal but lost Sanchez for the winner, could only nod tamely at Cech from a last-minute corner.

Sanchez, by that point, was sat on the bench, topless, content to see his efforts rewarded with three points. He trudged off at the end knowing that there is far more to come.

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