Arsenal faces test from resurgent Crystal Palace
LONDON – Agence France-Presse
Arsene Wenger knows Arsenal cannot afford a repeat of its last trip to Selhurst Park when it faces Crystal Palace on Dec. 28.
The Gunners have benefitted from extra rest compared to their rivals in the battle for a top four place and face the Eagles six days after the pulsating 3-3 draw with Liverpool that marked the start of the holiday fixtures.
But in the meantime, they have seen Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea all win to intensify the battle for a Champions League spot.
That means Wenger’s side faces Palace knowing it risks losing ground if it fails to claim three points.
That was a task that proved beyond the team when it faced the Eagles last April and turned in one of its worst displays of the season when it fell to a 3-0 defeat.
Then, Palace was involved in a desperate battle to avoid relegation and it overwhelmed an Arsenal side that fell short in its efforts to finish in the top four, failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Wenger.
This time around, the gap to fourth placed Liverpool is four points, while victory will move Arsenal level on points with Tottenham in fifth.
The season will produce many more twists and turns, but heading into the second half of the campaign, it would be a major blow if there were signs of Wenger’s side losing ground, particularly while the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil remain up in the air.
Whether those two players stay beyond the end of the season when their current contracts expire remains to be seen, but Wenger has offered clues that Jack Wilshere will be handed a new deal.
The England midfielder has forced his way back into Wenger’s line-up after another injury-scarred start to the campaign and impressed in the meeting with Liverpool.
“He is better now than in the last two or three years. It’s positive, overall he is in very good shape,” said Wenger.
The Frenchman knows his side must improve on the first half defensive display that almost cost it against Liverpool.
Palace has hardly been a prolific scorer but Wilfried Zaha has been showing the kind of form that has seen the Ivory Coast international once again linked with a move away, with Manchester City and Tottenham reported interested.
Palace striker Christian Benteke is available to return after missing the trip to Swansea while he served a one-match suspension.
A draw in Wales extended Palace’s unbeaten run to eight games and midfielder Luka Milivojevic said: “After the first seven games we hadn’t taken any points or scored a goal but now we find ourselves in a better position on an unbeaten run of eight games.
“We now need to continue in the same way. The games coming up are the ones you look forward to play in this league.
“We have matches against the biggest teams in the league and we will be trying to do the best for our club.
“It won’t be easy having the three games in a short space of time but we know what we have to do and we will be ready for it.”