Fulham 0 Arsenal 1
Fulham away has been my favourite Premiership away fixture since the Cottagers moved back home in 2004. Possibly London`s most picturesque borough, situated as it is right on the River Thames and the quaint, traditional ground is annexed onto the idyllic Bishop`s Park. The area also offers some of London`s best boozers. I always hope that this game is played in the summertime and with the weatherman granting sumptuous blue skies and late summer sunshine, the scene was set as we took our place in the opulent Boathouse pub on Putney Bridge, set on the Wharf of the Thames at precisely 1pm. With four and a half hours until kick off, there was plenty of time to sample the delights of a Young`s Pub, the Young`s Kew Bitter proving to be my pallet`s preferred weapon of choice. The establishment soon became awash with Gooners, with Goonerholic, Navydave and Gooner_Vin all in attendance, the cyber world was made flesh for Vital Arsenal. I`m sorry I didn`t get the chance to natter with you all at any length; most of you caught me at the bar with an armful of beverages! Being one of the youngest in our entourage, I`m told juniors always make the bar run in lieu of the seniors, who have earned their stripes. Some people will use any old excuse you know.
Ironically, one of the things we discussed was who would play in goal. Almunia`s "chest infection" (who misses four games with a bad cough? Talk about man 'flu) coupled with Szczesny`s impressive performance in midweek left the position open to question. Lord Lowe commented that Mannone had looked "unconvincing" which I countered to be a little unfair. Come 19.30 views would be rectified. We made our way to the ground, a little disappointed the barbecue had disappeared in Bishop`s Park, giving way to a bog standard burger van. In Mike`s case "bog standard" burger proved to be a little apt. One of the great things about the Putney End is that it retains noise very well and the travelling pilgrims filled the cathedral with singing throughout. Andrey Arshavin`s return lubricated the vocal chords, as did the sight of cult hero Eboue jogging across the turf to take his place on the bench. The Gunners struggled to get their rhythm in the opening stages; Bendtner and van Persie were very industrious but lacking in guile. Fulham created the first opportunity of the game, a ball into Zamora in the channel saw him tuck the ball back to Zoltan Gera and with Vermaelen chasing him out wide, Arsenal lacked the aerial presence in their own box to prevent Johnson stooping to meet his cross with a firm header which Mannone beat away, Dempsey was swiftly onto the rebound but Mannone was up and the ball hit him in the face. You might say there was an air if serendipity about the follow up save, but Mannone was sharp to his feet to increase his chances of getting something in the way. The importance of an early save for a young rookie goalkeeper was to be crystallized later on.
Arsenal ebbed and flowed but once in the first half, the "Triple Entente" proving to be the pivots. Fabregas used van Persie as a sounding board in the area, before dinking the ball into the path of Arshavin on the left of the area, an awkward bobble coupled with a sliding challenge from Gera culminated in the Russian poking the ball over the bar. I`ve seen and heard a fair bit of criticism for Fabregas` performance yesterday, yet when it came to it, he created our goal and our best opportunity. I often think he is so good we take for granted how precious he is to us. Don`t make the mistake of taking him for granted, you`d notice if he wasn`t there. Fulham carved another good opportunity with some neat football, Murphy played the ball into Johnson who showed great awareness to flick the ball into the path of the onrushing Gera but Mannone got down to palm his low steered shot wide. The first half proved to be a war of attrition with the home side just shading it. But Gallas and Vermaelen looked very solid and you had the feeling Arsenal had a couple more gears to cruise.
They would find those gears early in the second half; Song intercepted an aimless Konchesky clearance, Bendtner thought quickly to nudge the ball to Fabregas and the captain swerved an inch perfect pass into van Persie who embellished the beauty of the ball with an excellent first touch and low finish with his right foot as he manoeuvred between Hughes and Hangeland. Song, Bendtner, Fabregas and van Persie all thought and acted quickly in the build up to the goal, it was the speed and accuracy required in a game as tight as this and van Persie`s touch and finish in the tightest snatch of space was of game winning quality. I`m still confused as to why people don`t believe van Persie can play at the arrowhead of the front three. Goals such as this and his efforts against Everton and Liverpool last season show he has the quality and strength to eke out space with his control and movement, he`s strong and intelligent with his back to goal. I think people have taken his goal tally to now a little too personally. He`s performed a valuable function for the team all season long and that`s all that matters, not Fantasy Team points or whose name you have on the back of your replica shirt. Arsenal were in their stride and could have had a second, Gallas moved the ball forwards to van Persie, he turned brilliantly with his back to goal and released Bendtner in the right channel, but his low shot was beaten out by Schwarzer.
Fulham proved to be dogged opponents, as you would come to expect from a team under the wing of an excellent coach like Hodgson. Zamora again worked the channel and pulled Vermaelen away from the area, he flighted in a cross to find Johnson stooping for a header again, again Mannone beat it out and again Dempsey was quickly onto the rebound, but he could only drive it across goal. More hearts would be a flutter in the Putney End when Dempsey collected Murphy`s pass on the edge of the area and the American`s shot ricocheted off of Sagna`s studs, kissed the outside of the post. Arsenal would look vulnerable in the air again when Konchesky put in a late free kick, Zamora easily out leapt Diaby only to find Mannone`s gun slinging finger tips push the ball out again. In injury time, Gallas made an heroic block from Murphy`s attempted volley, putting his body on the line for the cause. Arsenal might have sealed the game on the counter attack when Fabregas found Eboue rampaging into space with Fulham committed, but he dragged his effort wide when he ought to have at least worked the goalkeeper.
In the end it was a solid, hard fought 1-0 away win against an excellent Fulham side. I`ve actually come to be more enthused about results like this than when we are at our free flowing best. Shoeing Wigan and Portsmouth at home, whilst very satisfying, does not tell us anything we don`t already know about this team. Questions abound as to our ability to win ugly and grind out results. I reckon United won at least fifteen games in this exact manner last season. We weren`t at our gorgeous best- Fulham simply didn`t allow us to be with a determined, formidable display. (They also showed it is possible to be committed, determined and aggressive, as well as creative, without the need for leg snapping challenges- I`m looking at you Allardyce, you slimy walrus). I think the midfield three did a steady, solid job and held their positions well. This might be the first time ever that I`ve seen Diaby have a 7 out of 10 game, he usually veers wildly between the sublime and the ridiculous but yesterday he was solid, that was what we needed him to be. Still a modicum of worry that Fulham found free headers so easy to come by in our penalty area, had Mannone not intervened that might have been highlighted more rigorously than it has been. Tightly contested games such as this are won by pieces of quality in the crucial areas- or mastering the key phases of the game- a phrase I have used time and again in describing Arsenal`s deficiencies. In the end, Arsenal showed one massive piece of quality in the attacking third with Fabregas` pass and van Persie`s brilliantly taken goal. At the other end, Mannone showed four pieces of match winning quality and that reflects well on the individuals responsible and the maturity of the team as a whole. Let us hope that, as the days are getting shorter, we did not bear witness to a false dawn.LD.
Team: 24.MANNONE, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 4.FABREGAS(c), 2.DIABY, 52.BENDTNER, 23.ARSHAVIN (7.Rosicky `68), 11.v.PERSIE (27.Eboue `82).
Unused: 12.Vela, 16.Ramsey, 18.Silvestre, 53.Szczesny.