CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Milivojevic 45 pen, 83 pen
Xhaka 51 Aubameyang 56
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT SELHURST PARK
Finally, after 417 minutes without a goal on home turf, came relief at Selhurst Park. Luka Milivojevic converted a first-half stoppage-time penalty as Crystal Palace found the back of the net for the first time in SE25 this season.
The skipper went on to convert a second spot kick with just seven minutes of the match remaining, as Palace put in their best performance of the campaign to earn a 2-2 draw against high-flying Arsenal.
The Serb’s double brought Unai Emery’s Gunners back down to earth following their 11-match winning run, and there were multiple facets to this heartening recovery following the Eagles’ struggles of late.
For too many of their games this season, Roy Hodgson has lacked faith in his options from the substitutes’ bench. Changes, if they came, were too late to take hold and effect games which slowly crept out of their grasp, but here things seemed to have turned a corner.
It was a surprising opening 45 minutes, without doubt the best from the hosts this season. They had verve, confidence and swagger, the likes of which have not been seen from this team since the back end of last season. Hodgson had somehow infected them with a sense of belief. Clearly they had studied Sporting Lisbon’s midweek showing in the Champions League, as they pressed the Gunners high up the pitch, a tactic which proved effective without being fundamental to their relative success in a draw which in some ways will have felt like a victory given expectations were low, but equally will leave them pondering what could have been.
The early pressure in this derby belonged to the team south of the river. As Palace hassled and harangued the Arsenal defence, they found that neat, intricate passing triangles between a triumvirate of Jordan Ayew, James McArthur and Wilfried Zaha were effective down the left, with Hector Bellerin struggling to contain this unusual combination which generally saw Zaha slip down the wing and win corners despite being tracked by three players. But with a quarter of an hour played, it was Zaha and Townsend who linked. The former England winger’s cross found Palace’s talisman at the back post, but with too much time to consider his options, the Ivorian dragged his shot against the base of the post and out. Bernd Leno had left his goal gaping, but Zaha could not make him pay.
Townsend dragged an effort wide, but this was promising from the Eagles. Selhurst Park was not quite on its feet, nor was the ground shaking from the vibrancy of the 23,000 or so home supporters, but for once this season, a semblance of atmosphere was back. The crowd appreciated the efforts of their team.
Milivojevic put paid to some of their suffering when Shkrodan Mustafi felled Cheikhou Kouyate on the cusp of half-time and he confidently made amends for last week’s missed spot-kick by opening his side’s home account.
Arsenal were level soon after the interval through a stunning Granit Xhaka free-kick, and subsequently took the lead in controversial fashion when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fired home at the back post despite Alexander Lacazette’s flagrant handball in the build up.
But Palace came out fighting. Into the fray came Max Meyer and Alexander Sorloth. The Norwegian would help his side break into the Gunners’ half and laid the ball to Zaha, who tricked Xhaka into fouling him inside the area. Milivojevic doubled his tally and secured a well-deserved point.
There was something different here that lacked in previous matches. There were still individual errors – McArthur, Patrick van Aanholt and Milivojevic were all culpable for the foul which led to Arsenal’s equaliser – but they were less frequent or disruptive. The pedestrian nature and lumbered build-up play largely disappeared. The constant, predictable passages of play were more varied. Wayne Hennessey was far less utilised to pump long balls.
For all these perhaps minor changes, it was the introduction of Meyer and Sorloth which swung the pendulum back towards Palace. They were brought into the game at the right time, and they were the right replacements used in the right manner. For the first time this season, Hodgson’s in-game management was the catalyst for changing things for the better. It is hard to quibble with the results of his experiment.
It helped that Arsenal were clearly some way from their swashbuckling best, but there was a belief, determination and quality in Palace’s play that has been sorely lacking throughout this campaign.
Victory would certainly not have been flattering on Hodgson’s side. The question is whether he will opt to throw in two players from the start at Chelsea next week who to date have had little opportunity but also have failed to take even that glimmer of chance.
The former England manager is conservative, but he showed signs here that pragmatism is not out of his reach.
Palace (4-3-3): Hennessey 6, Wan-Bissaka 8, Tomkins 7, Sakho 7, Van Aanholt 6, Milivojevic 6, Kouyate 7 (Puncheon 88), McArthur 5 (Meyer 61, 7), Townsend 6, Ayew 5 (Sorloth 64, 7), Zaha 7. Not used: Guaita, Kelly, Riedewald, Schlupp.