Saka leads the Gunners' upwardly mobile thrust
Arsenal take on fellow London side Crystal Palace on the increasingly commonplace Thursday matchday, which was once unheard of in domestic English football. Just a single point separates the teams prior to kick-off, and even with the recovery Mikel Arteta's charges have mounted in recent games, they still have an uphill struggle to breach the top six, let alone the top four. Nevertheless, their revival has been increasingly built on the less tried and tested younger players in the squad, and that is a trend that is set to continue at the Emirates on Thursday and well beyond. Read our preview here:
Since enduring a wretched winless run that had the giants hovering perilously close to the relegation zone, Arteta has managed to rally his troops, winning the last four in all competitions, and most impressively swatting Chelsea aside to kick off the current run. For Thursday's fixture, their treatment table is comparatively light, with only Gabriel Martinelli certain to miss out on the action. It's unlikely that either Thomas Partey or Gabriel will be risked, which would've set far more alarm bells ringing just a few weeks back. However, Pablo Marí, acquired on a permanent basis in the summer after a successful loan spell from Flamengo, recovered from a significant ankle injury in time for the Christmas schedule, and has since slotted in superbly as the left-sided centre back. It would be a stretch to suggest any one individual has done the same in Partey's absence, but there is a more solid look down the spine since the tall Spanish stopper returned to the first team. Elsewhere, the hugely versatile Bukayo Saka continues to perform beyond his meagre years regardless of the role Arteta places him in (there have been at least five distinct ones in 2020/2021). It's hard to overstate just how important that has been during the campaign, and there's plenty of scope for him to keep growing as a player with all the minutes he's being afforded at present.
Onward, Christian soldier!
It's reasonable to suggest Belgian striker Christian Benteke has largely been a disappointment during his five year stint with the Eagles to date (first season aside), returning nothing like the goals tally he had hitherto shown himself to be capable of. That said, Roy Hodgson has continued to place faith in him, and the switch to a conventional 4-4-2 with the mobile, tricky figure of Wilfried Zaha alongside him is beginning to bear fruit. Far more at ease in his current position with the support required around him, the 30 year old will test Pablo Marí and especially Rob Holding in the air, and occupying one or both of them for any prolonged period of time will spell trouble for the hosts; Zaha, Andros Townsend, and Ebe Eze are all tremendously attack-minded individuals with pace and skill, and are surely poised to exploit any space on the counter.
A little less conversation...
There are still areas of the roster Arteta could improve upon despite the emergence of many hot prospects into the regular matchday squads. Couple that with their lowly current leafgue standing, and expectations are now rather muted as to what can be achieved this season, even if the wolves are no longer howling at his door for the time being. Palace have proven they're competitive against most of the more fancied sides, and are capable of providing a shock. However, their injury list and the current momentum of the hosts might mean a draw is the height of their realistic ambitions for the tie. Betfair are offering odds of 5.00 for Saka to score anytime and notch his fourth strike of the season.