It would be remiss of me to be sitting here with a similar injury to Eberechi Eze to not be more punctual with these post-match reaction pieces, and of course it is pure coincidence that I managed to put words together following a mighty fine win over Arsenal, but here are some of my takes from the game.
Palace blow Arsenal away with first-half intensity
Is this really Crystal Palace we are watching? The same Crystal Palace that just a year ago was reaching the end of the road under Roy Hodgson, stumbling uncertainly towards one of the most important summers in its modern history? This is a side transformed under Patrick Vieira, one that is almost unrecognisable to the team that had become reliable but predictable under the previous regime, who it shouldn’t be forgotten laid the foundation for what we are enjoying now.
On Monday night Palace pressed Arsenal relentlessly in the first 45 minutes. They forced mistakes and they capitalised on them. After that they managed the game, stayed compact and waited for their moment in the second half. When it came, they took it. Vieira’s team welcomed what was one of the form sides in the Premier League, a resurgent Arsenal who have looked increasingly like their former selves and before tonight appeared destined for the top four. And somehow, in this new world order, the Eagles made beating them look routine. As a Palace supporter it isn’t supposed to be like this. And yet, right now, it is.
Zaha makes the absurd look normal on a night of standout performances
It is difficult to pick a man of the match for a night like Monday. Attempting to follow Conor Gallagher across the pitch was like watching a game of live tennis. Jordan Ayew put in a performance that had teenagers scurrying to delete the tweets they’d sent at 19:01. The back four was as solid as it has ever been. Even Jean-Phillipe Mateta’s song got sung. But Wilfried Zaha still stood out above the rest, just days after the manager of his national team had seemingly ruled the player out of the game and potentially even the FA Cup semi-final with a hamstring injury. This, however, was Zaha at his swashbuckling best; no violence, just vibes. There is something about Arsenal that brings it out of him, whether it be the fact that they never truly followed through with their transfer interest, or simply the amount of space that they regularly afford him behind the full backs. Whichever one is Palace’s gain.
In the first half Zaha tormented Arsenal on the break, in one of those moods where he’s decided that no one can take the ball off of him, even affording himself a moment to taunt Cedric Soares with a knowing grin. His moments in the second half were more fleeting, but when the deciding one came it was worth the wait. Zaha picked the ball up in his own half and everyone else essentially stopped and watched. He skipped past a couple of challenges on his way to the penalty area where he was eventually brought down, before dusting himself off and dispatching the penalty. Had any other player done something similar, essentially taking on a solo mission against the opposition, it would have been replayed many times over. But Zaha has normalised the absurd. He has tricked us into believing that what he does on a weekly basis is standard. And he has now equalled his best goals tally for a season with eight games to play.
Joachim Andersen plays his best hits
Joachim Andersen massively reminds me of a defender I used to play football with at university. You could always feel his presence. He was our most technically gifted player, and although he didn’t get many chances to prove it, probably our best finisher, too. The fact that the Dane stepped up to take a free kick in the second half perhaps speaks to just how highly his teammates trust Andersen’s ability to thread the ball through the eye of a needle. That’s precisely what he had done in the first half, playing a precise ball that offered just enough for Gabriel to believe he had a chance of intercepting a pass that would eventually be clinically converted by Ayew. It was one of two assists in a game where Andersen’s full range of passing was on display, drawing audible gasps of approval on occasion from a Selhurst Park crowd that has perhaps never known a centre back so accomplished on the ball. He and Guehi deserve immense credit; they are a big reason that Palace are more exciting to watch this season.
Eagles make up for disappointment at the Emirates
I remember leaving our game against Arsenal at the Emirates in October feeling genuinely quite empty. It was the second time in a month that Palace had conceded with what was more or less the last kick of the game and was one of those results that made you wonder if our luck was going to be rotten under Vieira. But the caveat was always that this was a young manager overseeing a team in transition, one that was still learning on the job and would eventually iron out the creases that were leading to points being dropped. The performances were good, we said, the points will come.
That theory is starting to hold true.
The Eagles could have lost focus after establishing a two-goal lead against Arsenal. We’ve seen other teams do similar against the perceived bigger sides in the past. Earlier in the season Palace felt at their most frail when they had just scored. But rather than panic, as they might have done in those early days under Vieira, the Eagles kept their composure, kept the game in front of them. The biggest compliment you can pay is that it rarely felt like that lead was under threat, which isn’t something we would have been saying five or six months ago. Monday night was a measure of the progress that has been made in the short time since that night in North London, where you hope the Arsenal hierarchy remain invested in the Arteta project amid Palace’s development under Vieira.
Should we be getting carried away?
On a personal note I haven’t been able to get to a Palace game since the 3-1 defeat at home to Liverpool because of an achilles rupture – or “the Eze injury”, as Palace fans may know it – sustained at the end of January. It has meant spending a lot of time in a weird sort of self-induced lockdown, much like the one we found ourselves in about a year ago. In many ways the routine is the same; my weeks pretty much build up to when Palace are playing on the telly. Last year the performances only added to the pent up frustration. The one thing we had to look forward to often underwhelmed us. This year, for me, there is a different kind of frustration, only it’s at missing out on Palace putting together a sequence of what are probably some of their best top-flight performances in the modern era.
I’m usually one to urge caution but it’s difficult to remember a time when the atmosphere around the club was so positive – not only internally, but also from external admirers. And it’s even more difficult not to get swept up in it. Palace have taken four points off of both Manchester City and Arsenal. They are unbeaten in seven games. There have been four clean sheets in a row. What is going on?! We know how quickly things can change, but as things stand Palace are in the top half of the Premier League with an FA Cup semi-final to look forward to. If we can’t allow ourselves to get carried away now, then when can we?