Arsenal 5-1 Crystal Palace

Dennis Bergkamp (32)
Jose Antonio Reyes (35)
Thierry Henry (39, 77)
Patrick Vieira (54)

Andrew Johnson (pen 63)

The Gunners: Jens Lehmann -- Gael Clichy, Pascal Cygan, Kolo Abib Toure, Lauren Bisan-Etane -- Jose Antonio Reyes, Edu (Mathieu Flamini 61), Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires (Francesc Fabregas Soler 80) -- Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp (Robin van Persie 79)

The Eagles: Gabor Kiraly -- Emmerson Boyce, Fitz Hall, Gonzalo Sorando, Danny Granville -- Tom Soares, Michael Hughes, Aki Riihilanti (Mikele Leigertwood 31), Wayne Routledge (Vassilis Lakis 64) -- Dougie Freedman (Joonas Kolkka 64)

The one thing I love about this Arsenal side is that they almost never fail to come back with an imperious performance of sheer defiance (hence the headline, besides the fact that "five-star (insert winner here)" is about the most tired headline imaginable...I see that Soccernet uses it, and I bet my right eye that BBC and Sky and whoever else used it as well) after a horrendous one. This season has had more demoralizing defeats than we're used to, but it's heartening in one sense to see them absolutely pillage a pretty decent side like this. Yeah yeah, I know what some of you are thinking: "Palace are down by the bottom. That means they can't be any good." Well, I could see why some would think that...the only problem is that they're wrong. Iain Dowie has made these guys into a pretty tough outfit to break down, as they showed for the opening half-hour today. I'm reminded of a great call that Alan Parry made during Charlton Athletic's visit to Highbury earlier this season: "These are class players they're up against, and Arsenal are just taking the mickey." They were up for it from the opening whistle, but don't let the match reports fool you...they were not steamrollering Palace in that first half hour. After that though, the legions of Gooner fury were just too numerous and bloodthirsty to keep at bay any longer. Even with the game well and truly won, Arsenal didn't drop much below, say, fourth gear or so. Why is that, you may ask?

Simple. Arsenal kept their boot on the throat of Crystal Palace for one reason -- to send a message. That correspondence is intended not only for the Mank bastards and the Blood Money XI on the west end...but to Sheffield United and (more importantly) Bayern Munich as well. There were some worrying moments from this one as well...don't get me wrong. But, all in all, this is a bombard sounding from every cannon in Islington (and around the world) -- We have not yet BEGUN to fight.

The thing is, it all could have been different for Palace. If some things broke their way, this would have looked much more like the home match against the Tottenscum than the home match against Everton. Right from the opening kickoff, Palace came out swinging. All credit to them, they fought with the desperation and the swagger that they had to have to get anything out of this game. In the first minute, a terrible clearance from Cygan (I'll give you a moment to scrape your jaw off the floor............OK...done) allowed Freedman to nip in behind the defenders. He was in a central location, and to be blunt, he should have scored. Instead, Lehmann saved well to his left, and then recovered in wonderful fashion to get off his line to block on Andy Johnson's rebound chance. If you've ever been between the sticks (even in just an indoor or Sunday league), you know the second save is always much harder than the first. Well done, Jens.

Believe it or not, it actually could have been 2-0 Palace within three minutes. A scramble off an Arsenal corner resulted in a few blocked shots, and the Eagles counter-attacked. It didn't come to much directly, but the Gunners were forced into a hurried clear back to the goalkeeper. The only problem was that because it was so rushed, it wasn't a straight, medium-paced back pass. He had to really thump it, and it was bouncing off the turf besides. Of course, the torches-and-pitchforks set will be all set to hang Lehmann from his balls for letting it get by him. But, well, if it wasn't that, they would just find something else to bitch and moan about. Anyway, Lehmann showed nice quickness and agility to get back and clear off his line at the last possible instant. It was a bad bounce, and the bottom line is that he fucking saved it.

The game settled into a rhythm after that, with Arsenal attacking well and Palace counter-attacking with pace and vigor. My written notes mark the 18th minute as the time where Arsenal started to get that little bit of an advantage...that little crack showing in the Palace armor. Henry signalled his intentions with a crisp half-volley that curled just wide of the near post (which, for some reason, they attacked ruthlessly all night...maybe Monsieur Wenger found Kiraly's weakness?). Bergkamp created the chance, and now I look like a total moron for saying he was done a few weeks back. He was his old imperious, majestic self...he wears a magic hat indeed. Arsenal then won a free kick in a dangerous area, but as they would all night, Palace neutralized it with a run-like-mad offside trap. It was a bit goofy, but you have to admire their timing and precision.

Anyway, the turning point came on the half hour, as Aki Riihilanti took a knock and had to come off. Note that this was not the reason Palace lost (shite finishing and bad luck allowing Arsenal time to get going would be more like it), but it definitely did have a major impact. Riihilanti is an aggressive little pest in the mold of Robbie Savage (if not quite as effective), and a guy like him is vital if you're going to play the type of game needed to counter an increasingly-rampant Arsenal side. On came Leigertwood, who is a perfectly acceptable squad-rotation fullback. This, friends, is not an upgrade.

Palace never did have the same bite to their counterattack after that, nor did they have the pace to make Arsenal pay for their constant bombing runs forward. Once that happened, it only could have one outcome from there. Dennis got the party started immdiately after the Finnish sparkplug left the field. Arsenal had a free kick, and a pinball series of three passes unlocked the Palace defense -- visually, it looked like a checkers player jumping three pieces in white and getting kinged in the end. Bergkamp got the ball from Reyes in the area, and just kind of deflected the ball past the near-post side of Kiraly. Some may not agree, but despite the beautiful build-up, I think the Hungarian No. 1 really, really should have saved it...or at least been able to make a better effort. If DB10 was in a central area, then fine. But, off to the side like that, you have to protect your near post first.

Despite that, Palace again should have scored two minutes later (keep in mind that at this point, it could and probably should have been 1-3 to the Palace). A long ball from the back (which Arsenal were vulnerable to at several points in the match, likely due to the absence of Sol Campbell) found Freedman, who ended up again behind the defense. His half-volley went high and wide, much to the relief of Lehmann. It wasn't as easy a chance as it looked, but he probably should have hit the target.

Anyway, if you squander a chance to put Arsenal away, they will make you pay dearly for it. No more than two minutes later, Reyes' goal-scoring drought was over...and the rout was officially on. A typical spell of one-two passing from Arsenal hypnotized the Palace defense, allowing Henry a shot outside the area. His hard shot caromed off of Fitz Hall, but the ball bounced fortuitously to Reyes. With one touch to settle it, the Spaniard blazed a shot across the face of goal and into the top corner...just a class, class strike.

The home side kept threatening, and Palace were definitely on the back foot now. Kiraly first had to be sharp to palm away a wayward header from Sorondo, and then could only watch as a defender cleared his line off a short corner (which Arsenal used to great effect on several occasions). Actually, it was off a short corner that Arsenal got their third, as a one-two pass between Henry and Reyes ended with the Frenchman scoring a goal that looked a lot like Reyes'. The only difference was that he took a moment to cut inside the area first.

So, 3-0 to the Gunners at the interval. But, it very easily could have been 4-4 or 5-4...nobody could claim that they hadn't gotten their money's worth already.

The second half wasn't played at the same frenetic pace as the first, but it was eventually much of the same...a version 0.75 of the first half, if you will. Freedman again got open early in the second stanza, and again he pulled his shot wide of the mark. If Palace goes down, then it will be because they hardly have any scoring threats at all if you can neutralize new England man Andy Johnson. Sure enough, Arsenal made them pay again with their fourth. Another masterclass of short and medium-long passing saw the Eagles' defense eviscerated once again. Bergkamp played it forward to Henry, who then sent a breathtaking slide-rule pass across the face of the area. If you've ever wanted to see an entire defense + goalkeeper wrong-footed all at once, this is the play for you. Kiraly tried to charge off his line and stumbled, allowing Vieira to cheekily walk the ball into the net for the 4-0 lead.

At that point, Arsenal took it down a notch, mostly content to play keep-ball to the delight of the Highbury faithful (Ole! Ole! Ole!). For the most part, Arsenal were far better defensively in the second half, as Palace couldn't even hang onto the ball much of the time. If you've ever played Football Manager 2005, and you're watching your team win 7-0, that's what it looked like for large portions of the half. An opponent moves two feet, and one of your mob takes it off him like it was his lunch money in grade school.

However, Palace did deserve something out of this, and they finally got it on the hour. Boyce's long ball gave Johnson some time and space, and he used it to skin Toure on his way into the center of the penalty area. The backtracking Vieira caught him with a clear foul, so Rob Styles rightfully awarded the penalty. Johnson decided to go with power over speed, and it worked out for him...the ball struck the bottom of the crossbar and went in instead of out. By the way, a quick word about him. The guy is definitely Arsenal class...and if Palace happen to get relegated, we'd be insane not to get him. He's English, relatively young, seems to have a great attitude, works hard, and has done this well with almost no help whatsoever. With Henry and Pires and Reyes around him, this guy would be unreal.

This is getting long, and the hour becomes late. So, I'll sum up the rest of it. Pires hit the post, but probably should have scored. The game got scrappier, and some yellow cards came out. Clichy's gorgeous long cross-field pass found Bergkamp on the touchline. He absolutely skinned Granville, and then found Henry in the center. He faked to his left foot, got it back on his right, and sent a thunderbolt into the near top corner for the final goal. Leigertwood actually should have scored, but sent his chance over the bar. The chance was created by the hard work and running of Lakis, who (I'll say it again) should probably be in their starting ii. Fabregas and van Persie both got a run-out, and that was that.

All in all, a good win for the Arsenal, and I belive the good signs outweigh the bad. Actually, the perceptive types had to have known this was coming. The first rumblings came in the Newcastle match, and they started to manifest more in the Villa game. This is another step up, as the old Arsenal came only after an opening 30 minutes where we could have been 2-0 down. Still, for a match where we had no Campbell and no Cole (also no Ljungberg, since we're on the subject of defensive players), this wasn't as bad as it could have been. Now, it remains to be seen if we can keep this momentum going heading into two of the more important matches of the season.

There's still hope as long as the team keeps fighting like this. Bottom line.


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