Pépé and Martinelli sink Crystal Palace to keep Arsenal’s European hopes alive

Sport

A visibly emotional Roy Hodgson took the microphone on the turf he has venerated since childhood, said his thank yous and farewells, and a pin could be heard dropping high in one of the Selhurst Park stands. The stars could hardly have aligned any better in every aspect bar the result that had just passed: the long-awaited return of 6,500 supporters had coincided with a poignant departure and any sadness was offset by pleasure at the fact so many were there to herald Crystal Palace’s storied manager.

“It’s been a real privilege to come back and work here for the last four years,” Hodgson told the assembly. His sincerity was unquestionable and, no doubt, understated: the dream of managing his boyhood club came true late in life and the satisfaction of maintaining them among bigger names, budgets and reputations in the Premier League’s mid-table is so much more than a footnote to a 45-year career.

The only disappointment for Hodgson was that, having had Arsenal’s number for so many years, he could not keep them at bay just once more for old times’ sake.

Palace had not lost their previous five games against these opponents and should have extended that run. It was the kind of performance they have often turned out on their better days under Hodgson, vigorous and redoubtable with flashes of game‑altering quality, but in the end those moments of magic came from an otherwise low-octane away side.

As it happened, the one that really mattered was the scruffiest. Arsenal had hardly threatened in the second half, passing from side to side but failing to test Vicente Guaita, and Palace looked the likelier winners at one apiece. Mikel Arteta’s side knew a win would thrust them back European contention but looked woefully low on intensity; that was until the first minute of stoppage time when Martin Ødegaard, checking in from the right, spotted his fellow substitute Gabriel Martinelli ghosting in beyond the far post. Pass and run were in perfect sync: Martinelli took an awkward first touch but stabbed home with his next and, after surviving a VAR check for handball, could reflect that his second goal of the season may yet hold significant weight.

“It was a crucial moment for us because we wanted to go into the final day having every chance of going into Europe next season,” Arteta said. “We were running out of time: it looked difficult but we found a way to do it.”

There were still enough seconds left for Nicolas Pépé to weave through the Palace backline and convert his second fabulous goal of the night. Arsenal had scored from all three of their shots on target and, through all the feeling around the occasion, the football man in Hodgson could not resist lamenting in his post-match press conference that his team was “good value for at least a point in the game”.

They had lined up opposite Arsenal’s players and staff before kick-off, forming a guard of honour and applauding as “one of our own” rang out from all four sides. Palace could have paid further tribute by going ahead in the first half-hour but Bernd Leno saved from James Tomkins and Jeffrey Schlupp while Christian Benteke headed over. That allowed Pépé, controlling a waist-high volley perfectly after sparkling buildup play between Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka, to offer the first suggestion Arsenal would spoil the party.

Benteke, who Arsenal felt should have been dismissed when he appeared to glance Mohamed Elneny’s face with an elbow, eventually scored his fourth goal in four games with a diving header after the hour and came close to a winner. “We just lost it,” said Arteta of Arsenal’s display after the equaliser, but they found something extra and may earn the questionable honour of Europa Conference League football if they defeat Brighton on Sunday.

If he wants, Hodgson can now enjoy a life without any prospect of grubbing around the continent’s outposts. “I prefer to leave avenues open because who knows what the future will be?” he said, reluctant to entirely close the door on one last crack at things. “Am I going to be able to wean myself off something that is so good to me?” He has been just as positive an influence on his sport.