CARDIFF (Reuters) – Crystal Palace put a dent in Arsenal’s Champions League qualification hopes after strikers Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha made the most of defensive errors in a 3-2 win at the Emirates Stadium in their Sunday evening clash.
The visitors took a shock early lead inside 20 minutes when captain Luka Milivojevic’s freekick found an unmarked Benteke, who headed it past Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno for his first league goal since April last year.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery responded with the introduction of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi at the start of the second half but it was Mesut Ozil who scored the equaliser after a sweeping move.
The German playmaker combined with Iwobi and striker Alexandre Lacazette before scooping the ball past Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita.
But Arsenal paid for a lapse in concentration at the back as Zaha took advantage of Shkodran Mustafi’s error in judgement to grab the lead for the visitors, before Palace added a third with a headed goal from James McArthur.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reduced the deficit for the hosts with his 19th league goal of the campaign to set up a pulsating final 10 minutes but Palace held on to end Arsenal’s 16-match unbeaten run at home in the league.
The result ensured Palace’s Premier League status for another season as they moved to 12th spot in the standings with 42 points.
“It’s nice to get over the 40-point marker and to have safety mathematically confirmed,” Palace manager Roy Hodgson said.
“Our defensive shape was fantastic. We remained compact and narrow. We made it difficult to find spaces behind us. I then thought on the counter-attack we were remarkably dangerous.”
Hodgson was particularly impressed by Benteke’s return to the scoresheet after 19 league games and now expects the Belgian striker to finish the season with a flourish.
“Christian Benteke must be very confident after today’s performance,” the manager added.
“It wasn’t the fact he scored and set one up, he worked tirelessly and did a job offensively and defensively. He and Wilfried Zaha will feel they really did a job for the team.
“For Christian who’s had a rough time with injuries and not scoring the amount of goals he wants maybe with the final few games he will score a few more.”
Arsenal remain fourth but fail to take advantage of defeats for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United earlier this weekend.
Elsewhere, Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Cardiff City on Sunday restored their two-point lead over Manchester City in the Premier League title race but their inspired breakthrough goal came only as the result of a halftime chat about set pieces.
Juergen Klopp’s side had been struggling to create clear openings against a determined Cardiff defence and went in goalless at the break.
But in the 57th minute, a corner was played low and deep by Trent Alexander-Arnold to Georginio Wijnaldum, who was free to drive it home in the penalty area with a sweet first-time drive that finally set Liverpool on the way to victory.
“It was so smart,” said Klopp. “We used experience from the first half for that corner in the second half.
“It was not from the training ground, it was from the dressing room at halftime when the boys decided to do that. I love that, a brilliant goal.”
Klopp said that the team had realised that their normal routines had not been effective and opted to move to another approach.
“If you are not happy with all of the things on the day then we have to try something different. That’s difficult on the pitch to decide because you need too many players being involved.
“But at halftime, it is possible so they did it. Brilliant, I love it.”
The hard-fought win puts the pressure on City ahead of their Manchester derby on Wednesday. They have to win their game in hand to regain the lead by a point.
Then come three more games for both sides which will determine the outcome of the title.
Klopp was delighted that his team had been able to battle through a difficult test on a dry, hard surface to pick up the three vital points.
“Going to Cardiff, you have to work there. We spoke a lot about this game, how special it is, how special the situation is for the opponent just to make clear what we had to do today,” he said.
“It was not a game for a little bit of playing around, it was a game for a 100 percent fight, a battle of will again and who wants it more?”