Arsenal 2 Fulham 1
With the snow that has hit the capital over the last few days beginning to thaw out, London seemed a more relaxed and slightly warmer place as we trudged though the slush and into the stadium. Vast pockets of empty space were again visible, as people had clearly decided not to bother because it was an ickle bit cold for them. Why these people don`t make their seats available on the ticket exchange I`ve no idea. Arsenal have not lost three consecutive home matches since March 1977 and it looked very unlikely they`d be repeating that unwanted triumvirate again this weekend. The Gunners were off to a flying start, Jack Wilshere curled in a wicked free kick which Sebastien Squillaci headed up into the air and the ball searched out Andrey Arshavin, unmarked on the back post, but his volley was blocked by the advancing Schwarzer. Fulham fans booed Arshavin throughout the game, presumably for his involvement in FIFA`s opaque trough snouting World Cup host selection. Polonium sandwiches all round next time we visit Craven Cottage.
Fulham were looking more nervous than a Russian investigative journalist as Arsenal threatened to tear into them from the off. Arshavin and Nasri the prime architects of their distaste. Arshavin and Chamakh played a tidy one two in a tight space and Arshavin once again drove at the heart of the Fulham defence, playing a deft ball behind the Cottager centre halves for the run of Nasri, but the Frenchman flicked the ball wide. But the two wide boys continued giving it large and it wasn`t long before their irresistible combination broke the Fulham deadlock. Aaron Hughes miscontrolled Simon Davies` pass and Arshavin was alive to the error, picking up the loose ball before releasing Nasri on the right hand side of the area. What followed was a sublime example of composure and control. He first feinted inside Hangeland, sending the giant Norwegian sprawling on his backside, before repeating the trick on Aaron Hughes, sealing his humiliation and then unleashing an emphatic left foot finish into the roof of Scwarzer`s net. The strains of KC and the Sunshine Band were warming the cockels of the Ashburton natives.
From here the home side looked ready to re-establish home soil as an impenetrable fortress. Song and Nasri played an effective one two on the right, Nasri cushioning the ball out of the air and swaggering past young Fulham left back Briggs in one movement, Nasri motored into the box and pulled back for Arshavin, but he can only prod his finish into the grateful arms of Scwarzer from close range. Young Briggs was then spared by Mark Hughes, suc h was the torrid time he was getting from Arsenal`s creative sophisticado. The Gunners` next threat emanated from the right again, but this time it was Tomas Rosicky who clipped in an inch perfect cross, which Alex Song contrived to volley wide from 10 yards. But just when you were questioning whether Arsenal would extend their lead and by how much, Fulham were back in it. Squillaci and Koscielny were guilty of miscommunication and a sickening clash resulted, with the back of Squillaci`s head smashing into Koscielny`s face. Koscielny did not go down but the referee still should have stopped the game. The nature and the severity of the clash was very, very clear to everyone in the stadium. Kosciely didn`t go down it`s true, but the rule doesn`t say he has to and though he tried to carry on initially (to his credit, some idiotic bloggers have chastised him for not going down. If you`ve ever received a very hard blow to the face you will know that your brain goes a little bit fuzzy. Car crash victims have been known to get out of their vehicles and walk for several yards with broken bones and severe internal bleeding), it was soon clear that he couldn`t as he buried his face in his hands. Clint Dempsey flicked a ball through to Kamara, in the exact position Koscielny would have been defending and Kamara slotted a smart finish past Fabianski.
Koscielny was soon laid out and had to be carried off. I don`t care that he didn`t go down, everyone in the stadium could see Koscielny was staggering and in big trouble. A referee`s number one priority, before anything else, is to ensure the safety of all participating players. He was in dereliction of duty on that occasion, you can`t just think that because a player has not hit the deck that he is not suffering a bad head injury, you have to be a bit more attentive than that when the players` safety is your responsibility. As it turned out it wouldn`t have been a difficult judgement call had some common sense been applied. It was crystal clear Koscielny was suffering a head injury to everyone inside the stadium. If a guy is staggering after a facial blow of that severity, you have to stop the game. At one point in the second half, Foy stopped the game when Etuhu was down holding his ankle. Is it any wonder players` constantly manipulate this rule? But the Gunners seemed to symbolically reel from the blow too, staggering punch drunk, Fulham could have moved into the lead. Etuhu`s prodded through ball somehow made it through to Kamara again, who was about a foot offside, but was allowed to go but Fabianski made a smart block on this occasion.
Half time and we were once again left to wonder how exactly the game was level. Fulham began to close us down ravenously in midfield and with our dangerously high defensive line and Kamara constantly looking to peel away on the shoulders of the centre halves, the Cottagers suddenly looked dangerous. The Gunners struggled to establish a rhythm in the second half, Song was crowded out in the area and the ball popped up to Rosicky, whose volley flew just wide. Arshavin saw a shot blocked on the edge of the area, the ball cannoned into the air and Wilshere intelligently headed to Nasri. Samir Nasri nudged the ball to Arshavin who dummied past Hangeland, only to find Mark Schwarzer`s legs blocking his path to goal. Fulham were finding opportunities, Aaron Hughes flicked on Simon Davies` corner to Zoltan Gera on the back post, Fabianski flapped and was fortunate to see van Persie on the line to hack Gera`s header away. The away side looked to get high balls into the area to trouble the Arsenal backline and it was Hangeland this time who flicked on a Murphy free kick and Gera`s bicycle kick drifted narrowly wide.
Arsenal were in a little spot of bother and needed one of their big players to step up with a piece of magic. Their biggest player of the season so far did not disappoint. Arshavin played the ball into a marginally offside van Persie, the Dutchman had the presence of mind to control the ball and play it into the onrushing Nasri., He ducked, weaved and bobbed past Hughes and Pantsil, Schwarzer looked like he had forced Nasri wide enough to limit the danger, but Nasri spun at a tight angle and hooked the ball into the net. A quite exquisite goal, the close control was even more impressive than in his first goal, where the ball was totally under his spell. On this occasion he was tip toeing without full control of the ball, amongst a littany of legs in a crowded penalty area. The crowd audibly dropped when he took the ball wide of Schwarzer, my first reaction was to look at who was coming into the area since I was fully expecting a cut back. The spin was a fantastic piece of thinking and execution. If the Player of the Season votes were being cast now (the PFA votes are cast in February!) this guy would be close.In any successful season, you see players step up to become heroes. Think of 2001-02 and Pires and Ljungberg playing above themselves.
Thereafter, it was clear that the poor recent home record played on the players minds as a nervy final 15 minutes endured, an edgy crowd exacerbating the stomach knotting finale. Johan Djourou headed a Davies cross just wide of his own post. Then Gera`s cross caused consternation in the area, Murphy won the flick on and the ball ricocheted to Dickson Etuhu, who swept the ball inches wide. Nasri and Song were both limping by this stage, but with all substitutions made, they were left to soldier on. Danny Murphy played yet another high ball into the Arsenal area, Etuhu chested it down and Gera`s dipping volley was well saved by Fabianski. The goalkeeper did particularly well to palm the ball away from danger with the ball dipping just as it reached him. In the end, te final whistle was music to some edgy ears. News that Chelsea had conceded a late equaliser against Everton filtered in to add to our sense of bonhomie. The early signs in this game were very good, with Nasri and Arshavin wreaking havoc, but we took too long to recover from the blow of the Fulham equaliser. Fulham caused us problems, both with Kamara`s pace and with high balls into the area. But ultimately, Nasri was the difference, he had the class and poise in the area that Fulham could not match- despite their opportunities. The game was symptomatic of a Premiership season which provides few easy games. Hopefully, the win will dispel the sort of nervy "what we have, we hold" tactics of the last 15 minutes. In the second half we got the job done and that`s the important thing. Nasri is fast becoming the most important player in our team, with Fabregas hamstrung, Nasri`s rise has been as necessary as it has been impressive. Long may it continue.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY (20.Djourou `33), 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE (14.Walcott `73), 7.ROSICKY (c) (10.v.Persie `63), 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN, 29.CHAMAKH. Unused: 15.Denilson, 28.Gibbs, 52.Bendtner, 53.Szczesny.