Marouane Chamakh is sitting in a dimly lit first-floor cubbyhole at Crystal Palace's Copers Cope training ground, fresh out of a squad yoga session, when the conversation turns tentatively to all things Arsenal. Logic dictates the subject might darken his mood. After all, the Moroccan's three-year association with the north London club was largely one of choking disappointment, a tale of false dawns and frustration, of sinister blackmail plots and ridicule from those who had expected so much more.
In that grim context, Sunday's return to the Emirates Stadium to confront former team-mates turned title contenders might send a shiver down his spine. Yet, from first mention, his memories are glowing. Even affectionate. There is acceptance as to why his career stalled so miserably, an acknowledgement of the education he received, and a desire that Arsenal go on to claim the Premier League title. There are thanks, too, for the support offered during his darkest days. "They're a team I always followed, a team I've loved, but that page has turned. Now it's important to feel wanted, and to show what I can do. But I have nothing to prove to Arsenal. Nothing at all."
Chamakh is not mourned in that corner of the capital given that Arsenal saw only flashes of his capabilities after his free-transfer arrival from Bordeaux in the summer of 2010. It is easy to forget the striker started so well. The goal plundered at Aston Villa in late November that first year was his 10th in 21 appearances, similar scoring form to that had propelled Les Girondins to the 2009 league title under Laurent Blanc. He was the first player to score in six consecutive Champions League matches, either side of his switch to London. Even on hefty wages, he felt like a Bosman bargain.
From then on, the numbers stack up for the wrong reasons. Between Villa Park and his first goal for Palace, at Stoke in August, the 30-year-old scored once in the Premier League, Arsène Wenger's faith in his abilities having been eroded. His tally of 19 league starts for Arsenal in three years, 17 coming in his first four months at the club, tells its own story.
In the first five months of 2011, Robin van Persie scored 21 times in 23 games, and would add 37 club goals the following year. If the Dutchman was a phenomenon, Chamakh swiftly became the outsider. "It was difficult," he says. "But we had Robin, a player at the height of his powers, the best in the Premier League at the time. He had a season that was completely crazy in that first year I was there, a season no one could have predicted, and got better. The manager only played with one up and Robin was never injured, he scored goals every week, so how was I going to play?
"I knew I wasn't in the side because he was better than me. That was the reality. I accept that. He's just a better player. Of course it was frustrating, seeing the team win virtually every week but playing very little part in making it happen. I hadn't moved to Arsenal to sit on the bench, but I knew why it was happening. You ask yourself questions, and in the end it was easy to see I had to leave. That was the only answer."
Van Persie's brilliance only partly explains Chamakh's struggles. More disturbing was the blackmail plot, a legacy of a holiday in Las Vegas during the summer of his arrival at Arsenal, which emerged early in 2011 and prompted a police investigation. A newspaper had been sent incriminating photographs and video footage, which it did not publish, but the rumours were rife and unsettling. If Chamakh recognised he had put himself in an awkward situation, he still shrivelled in the glare, his focus blurred and his mood anchored, while Arsenal's legal team came to his aid. "They backed me, and I will always be grateful for that support. They helped me through it, but it was a hard time.
"It took me by surprise. In France, that wouldn't have happened. I arrive in England and, seven months later, I'm being threatened, people trying to blackmail me … It got on top of me, weighing me down. I filed a complaint and the police intervened but, while we kept it all as quiet as we could, I couldn't explain to people why I was so low. So down. No one knows what it's like. There were some things I didn't want to talk about, but the club were always behind me, supporting me, protecting me. In the end, I came out on the right side of the story. I'm just glad the whole episode is over and done with.
"I'm stronger for that experience. How could I not be? When you go through something like that, you grow up and have to come out stronger. It's helped open my eyes to what can happen, things that I hadn't expected. Some people are out to get you, people it's hard to have any respect for. As sad as it is, they're looking for shit on footballers all the time. That's life. But it got to me."
In the circumstances, and having grown infuriated at a bit-part role on loan spell at West Ham – he would make a point of seeking out Sam Allardyce after scoring a winner against them at Selhurst Park in December – he might have been tempted to walk away from England last summer to seek out a fresh start with one of the clubs in Greece, Turkey, France, Spain or the Middle East who had expressed interest. But that would have constituted an admission of failure. Instead, Palace offered an unfamiliar challenge, a one-year deal to compete at the wrong end of the division, but as a key player charged with inspiring a hastily assembled lineup to safety.
It was Ian Holloway who sold him the project, and Tony Pulis who has restored his form. Chamakh is not prolific, with five goals this term, but he links up play effectively as a second forward behind Cameron Jerome in a stingy team that is upwardly mobile. Some of his touches expose his natural ability, his spring and awareness in the air a throwback to his Bordeaux days. Life can be unnerving for an elite performer thrust into a relegation battle, but the Moroccan recognises an opportunity.
"At my previous clubs the objectives have been at the other end of the table, or scoring goals in the Champions League, so all this is very different but I wanted to stay in England. It was always the league I loved, one I'd wanted to experience, and it was one I only really had a brief taste of at Arsenal. It wasn't that I had something to prove, but there was plenty I still wanted to do. Palace offered me a chance.
"I knew what I was walking into, the kind of struggle this season would be, but it appealed to me. It was always going to take me time to recover the level of performance I had at Bordeaux or at the beginning with Arsenal, but I knew I'd adapt. It was important to feel I would be a big part of the side. There were no fears or doubts, and there have been absolutely no regrets. I believe in this team and in what we're trying to achieve. I'm as desperate now to succeed and help the team stay up as I was to win titles when I first arrived at Arsenal.
"We're a more solid squad now. We know our qualities and want to fight for each other. It's a good group. A motivated group. We can stay up: win two or three matches and you rise almost out of trouble. That's what we're striving for, to give us more oxygen, to bring us clear. We're capable of doing that."
Tuesday's win over Hull was a second in succession in the league and ensured Palace went into this weekend 14th, four points clear of the cut-off, which is remarkable given they had been bottom with only four points on Pulis's appointment in November. The upturn has been born of rugged industry and endeavour, qualities some doubted Chamakh possessed, yet he has come to personify their revival.
Arsenal will stretch their defensive capabilities, with Palace braced for an awkward afternoon against a team who aspire to return to the summit as they pursue a first league title in a decade. "I'm not surprised to see them where they are," says Chamakh. "They've always had a great team, but they were missing something small to kick on. This year they seem stronger mentally – they're able to win matches in a different way – and they virtually have two world-class players for every position across midfield, which is where they win games.
"Mesut Özil's arrival has lifted them, not just the team but the entire club. It's great for the morale of the players to be alongside Özil, a player they can give the ball to and he can produce anything. That magic they need.
"It's maybe up front where they don't have the numbers, and [Olivier] Giroud has to play every match. He's taken on a tremendous workload, but has done so well. I'm pleased for him. I hope they go on and win it. They're ready."
So, too, is Chamakh to prove there is life after Arsenal. He has more to show the Premier League.