Wenger's tired troops in need of Palace zest

Crystal Palace 1 - Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

On the face of it, the line of questioning after Saturday's match at Selhurst Park was bizarre. Arsenal have lost just one Premiership match in 18 months, yet here was their manager being asked what was going wrong, whether his champions had lost their confidence and why they were looking so tired. That is the problem when you set such high standards.

On the face of it, the line of questioning after Saturday's match at Selhurst Park was bizarre. Arsenal have lost just one Premiership match in 18 months, yet here was their manager being asked what was going wrong, whether his champions had lost their confidence and why they were looking so tired. That is the problem when you set such high standards.

Although he is certainly not calling it a crisis, Arsène Wenger recognises he has some work to do. Arsenal have won only one of their last six matches - a victory for their reserve side against Manchester City in the Carling Cup - and for the first time in 11 months they do not lead the Premiership, deserving no more than the point they took from an enthusiastically competitive Crystal Palace side.

Was it a coincidence, Wenger was asked, that his team had been struggling since their record-breaking sequence of 49 Premiership matches had been ended by Manchester United? "Maybe not," he said. "I don't feel it's completely a coincidence. When you go 49 games unbeaten and then you lose, of course that's a shock. You're not used to it. Maybe the way it happened made it even worse, though you have to live with that. I don't think we'll have any problem recovering in the long term. We must remember that this team has lost only one game in the championship in 2004 and we're in November."

Wenger knows that almost every successful team suffers a dip in form at some stage and that the key is making a quick recovery. He recalled a drab 1-1 draw at Leicester 11 months ago - "We were much worse then than we were today," he said - which was immediately followed by a sequence in which his team won 12 and drew two of their next 14 matches.

Of perhaps greater concern is the fact that Arsenal are looking weary. Wenger said that last week's Champions' League draw at home to Panathinaikos had taken a lot out of his side and he will clearly be relieved to send out the reserves against Everton in the Carling Cup tomorrow. He pointed out the youth of his substitutes' bench here, acknowledging that a run of indifferent form was not the time to throw youngsters into the fray.

Palace were probably not the team Wenger would have chosen to meet at this stage. Iain Dowie has been determined to make his team one of the fittest in the Premiership and what they lack in sophistication they are making up for in work-rate and commitment. After taking only a point from their first six games it was hard to see Palace surviving, but a run of three wins and two draws from their subsequent six matches has given Dowie's men real hope.

Palace's spirit was epitomised by Aki Riihilahti, a midfielder of limited talent but boundless energy and self-belief. Surrounded by multi-million pound talent - nearly all clad in Arsenal shirts - the Finn emerged as the game's dominant figure.

When Thierry Henry put Arsenal in front from close range after 63 minutes, Riihilahti had chased back manfully in a vain attempt to cut out Freddie Ljungberg's cross after a neat one-two with Cesc Fabregas. Two minutes later the Finn robbed Patrick Vieira in midfield, passed to Andrew Johnson and charged forward into the penalty area. Johnson fed Vassilis Lakis, whose cross was joyfully stabbed home by Riihilahti for Palace's equaliser. Moments later he was at it again, holding off Vieira to free Lakis, who went on to finish a flowing move by wasting Palace's best chance of the match with a shot over the bar from less than five yards.

Vieira needed to be at his best to counter Riihilahti and his two non-stop midfield colleagues, the evergreen Michael Hughes and the youthful but perceptive Ben Watson. Meanwhile Johnson, fighting a lone battle up front, threatened with his pace as Dowie's men created several half chances.

Palace defended with dogged resilience, even after they had to reorganise following the early departure of Gonzalo Sorondo with a leg injury. In the first half, in particular, Palace were content to soak up Arsenal's pressure and rarely looked in danger, a remarkable tribute both to Dowie's organisational skills and his eye for talent. His defensive heroes included Emmerson Boyce, signed in the summer on a free transfer from Luton Town, and Mikele Leigertwood, recruited from Wimbledon for a minimal fee last season.

Dowie was justifiably thrilled by his team's display. "Of all the teams I've ever played against, you're never on the edge as much as against Arsenal," he said. "They play a wonderful style of football and can conjure a goal out of nothing. For us to compete with that quality was very pleasing."

Goals: Henry (63) 0-1; Riihilahti (65) 1-1.

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Kiraly; Boyce, Sorondo (Leigertwood, 24), Popovic, Granville; Routledge (Lakis, 52), Riihilahti, Hughes, Watson, Kolkka (Freedman, 80); Johnson. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Torghelle.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg (Bergkamp, 72), Vieira, Fabregas (Flamini, 81), Pires (Van Persie, 72); Reyes, Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Senderos.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral).

Booked: Arsenal: Cygan.

Man of the match: Riihilahti.

Attendance: 26,193.

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