Crystal Palace-Arsenal Preview
For almost three years running, the FA Cup was the domain of Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. While Crystal Palace have picked up that mantle by reaching Wembley for the first time since 1995, the Eagles still have some work to do to maintain their top-flight status in Sunday's match at Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal (17-8-7) still harbour title hopes, however faint they may be, as they enter the weekend 13 points behind Leicester City with six matches remaining and one in hand. While the Gunners are unbeaten in three matches after being denied a third straight FA Cup title with a quarterfinal upset at home to Watford and ousted from the Champions League by Barcelona three days apart last month, their 3-3 draw at West Ham United last Saturday may have been the death knell.
"It's not where we want to be," Wenger conceded. "We've made it far more difficult for ourselves to have a chance to win the championship. We have to keep going and hope, you never know what can happen. As well, we have to look behind us, clubs are chasing us and we have to be serious and focus on finishing as high as possible," he said after the match.
Wenger's curious decision to leave towering central defender Per Mertesacker on the bench proved calamitous as Andy Carroll - arguably the best player in the Premier League when it comes to finishing crosses aerially - drilled two headers by David Ospina around a volleyed goal to erase Arsenal's early 2-0 lead.
The Gunners salvaged a point with Laurent Koscielny's goal on 70 minutes, but the draw represented crucial lost points in such a fashion that has vexed Wenger at key points since he last lifted the Premier League trophy in 2004 with "The Invincibles."
"We will fight," Koscielny insisted to the team's official website. "We are professional players and we want to win. They (Leicester) have some important games. We will fight them to the end. Mathematically, it is not finished so we will try."
Arsenal's defence have been wildly hit and miss for nearly two months, a primary reason they're closer to fourth-place Manchester City than second-place Tottenham Hotspur. In their last 11 matches in all competitions, they have given up two or more goals seven times but posted clean sheets in the other four. Carroll's one-man symphony of destruction came after the Gunners had posted back-to-back clean sheets in league play.
There are no such issues offensively as Alex Iwobi continues to shine. The Nigeria starlet assisted on two goals at Upton Park after scoring in Arsenal's previous two league matches since becoming a full-time starter.
Crystal Palace (10-8-15) have no such title ambitions - the Eagles are tantalisingly close to the magic 40-point mark as they enter this match 16th and 11 points clear of Sunderland in the top drop spot. Every point is needed, and Pardew's side picked up a crucial one in midweek, grinding out a 0-0 result versus 10-man Everton on Wednesday at Selhurst Park in a clash of teams on opposite sides of the FA Cup semifinal draw.
Palace have picked up four points in two matches following their seemingly interminable and club-record 14-match winless spell, and also appear to have regained some of their swagger with back-to-back clean sheets ahead of this high-profile match. The Eagles also face Manchester United midweek before their highly anticipated clash with Watford at Wembley next weekend.
"We've had a lot of pressure on our backs recently but the boys turned up tonight and done the business," keeper Wayne Hennessey told Palace's official website. "I just want to do my job and keep the clean sheets and let the other boys do the damage on the other end.
"We'll have a lot of confidence behind us and hopefully we can keep a clean sheet in those games and get some goals."
Unfortunately for Hennessey, the odds of producing another shutout are against him. Arsenal have won six on the trot over the Eagles by a 14-5 aggregate and are unbeaten in the last 10 league matches (8-2-0) since a 2-1 home loss at Highbury on Oct. 1, 1994.