Arsenal 1 Fulham 1
In any sequence of games, be it a run of defeats or a run of victories, the law of averages says occasionally you`ll get a "megaball" game. Every sequence ends somehow. In the end, Arsenal`s winning run comes to an end but in circumstances that are acceptable. Games like this merely happen in any 60 game season. We`ll play a lot worse and win I`d wager. So too will Fulham. The Cottagers selected Clint Dempsey, Moussa Dembele, Bobby Zamora and Bryan Ruiz in their starting line up. The intention to counter attack was clear. Arsenal, meanwhile, rotated with Djourou coming in for Koscielny and Andrey Arshavin replacing Gervinho in attack.
Shortly prior to kickoff my sister and I discussed a segment she had watched on Football Focus about Wales manager Gary Speed. Speed had been one of our favourite players when the Premiership era was beginning. It was a fairly innocuous conversation but one that seems tragically poignant this morning. A gut wrenching loss.
The game began slowly, the lactic acid of Wednesday evening`s impressive endeavour against Dortmund evident. I wasn`t overly surprised myself; having predicted a nervy, fraught 2-1 victory. Fulham aren`t a team that generally lie down. Arsenal created their first clear opportunity after around 20 minutes. Alex Song found van Persie in space in the left channel, van Persie awaited the run of Aaron Ramsey, who collected van Persie`s pass and prodded goalwards. The ball seemed destined for the top corner until Mark Schwarzer clawed it away.
I feel obligated to point out probably one of the more diabolical calls by an official I have ever seen. John Arne Riise took a throw in to Bobby Zamora inside Arsenal`s half and the linesman on the East side of the ground flagged for offside. There was no suggestion of a touch from anybody at any point, but the linesman put his flag up and kept it up until referee Mike Dean instructed him to put it down. How very troubling that a top flight game can be officiated by somebody that doesn`t appear to know one of the more basic rules of the game.
Fulham were not just stifling Arsenal, they were carrying their own threat. Bobby Zamora managed to roll Vermaelen on the edge of Arsenal`s area, but fired his right footed effort narrowly over the crossbar. The Gunners were lacking in momentum, but a fulminating run from Walcott would threaten to light the blue touch paper. He sauntered past Riise to the edge of Fulham`s box and picked out Ramsey, but he hacked the ball over. Walcott again looked to be the catalyst when he fired a fearsome shot at Schwarzer, who blocked at his near post.
But Fulham constantly reminded about their threat on the counter. Dempsey dribbled upfield, driving at the heart of the Gunners` defence; Djourou drifted in from right back with a lack of cover from midfield, Dempsey released Dembele to his left. But Szczesny blocked his effort. From the resulting corner, Murphy lifted in an inviting cross, Szczesny had left his line to no avail and Brede Hangeland headed just over the bar. At half time you felt Arsenal were heavy legged and in need of a flicker of inspiration.
They nearly found it shortly after the break when Arteta feinted to shoot on the edge of the area, but instead played a disguised pass to van Persie; who`d again peeled away into an arc of space between full back and centre half. He turned his way past Riise and Hangeland before eking out a shot with his left foot which was headed for the bottom corner, until Chris Baird scuttled back and smuggled the ball off the line. Arsenal have seen seven shots cleared off the line by opposing defenders this season. More than any other side according to opta.
But just as the home side began to turn the screw, they found themselves behind. Arteta uncharacteristically gave the ball away in his own third; Danny Murphy lifted a delightful through ball to match the run of John Arne Riise. His chest trap seemingly put him in on goal; Vermaelen scurried across to clear, but stupidly tried to do so with his left foot, succeeding only in turning the ball past his own keeper. How many own goals are players going to score, easy chances are players going to miss before this sort of occurrence becomes less common. It`s one of my great bugbears that men that play football seven days a week, for huge sums of money, won`t use a particular foot even in the direst of situations. Utterly baffling.
Arsenal composed themselves and went for the onslaught. Gervinho replaced the ineffective Arshavin. It was a big chance for the Russian to stake a claim in his first league start since the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn in September. He didn`t take it. Arshavin strikes me as an incredibly introspective guy and I think he struggles in spells like this because he over analyses himself. Gervinho produced more threat in 20 minutes than Arshavin provided in 70. But it was a set piece that looked like it would bring the Gunners to parity. Van Persie whipped a left wing corner into the area. Djourou rose for a free header which Schwarzer was able to claw away.
Gervinho then probed down the left and teed up Santos inside the area. Santos lifted a cross to the back post where van Persie brilliantly plucked the ball from the sky with his chest, brought it down and took a touch to set himself. Unfortunately, the beguiling control had left him off balance and he leant back as he skied his attempt. But Arsenal did restore parity on 82 minutes. Van Persie nudged the ball out wide to Walcott, he hit an impressive cross into the area aimed at Chamakh, but Vermaelen had ghosted in untracked from centre half and connected with Walcott`s cross, nodding it downwards into the corner of Schwarzer`s goal.
The reds searched frantically for a winner. Gervinho again probed on the left hand side and again it was Santos he found for the pullback, the Brazilian`s shot was blocked by Dempsey. Initially it looked like the shot had been blocked by Dempsey`s arm but I think it was a good decision by Dean. Dempsey`s arms were by his sides and not at all in an unnatural shape. It would have been a desperately harsh award. The Cottagers threatened to win the game for themselves with the game`s last kick. Dickson Etuhu appeared to have smuggled his way between Djourou and Song in the area, but a last ditch tackle from Djourou enervated his progress. It was a timely reminder as the final whistle sounded that it could have been an awful lot worse. Unfortunately, this morning, we have been reminded once again that things can be immeasurably worse. With that, our respects to Gary Speed and his family. RIP.
13.SZCZESNY, 20.DJOUROU, 4.MERTESACKER (2.Diaby `68), 5.VERMAELEN, 11.A.SANTOS, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA , 16.RAMSEY (27.Gervinho `68), 14.WALCOTT, 23.ARSHAVIN (29.Chamakh '74), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused; 6.Koscielny, 21.Fabianski, 26.Frimpong, 30.Benayoun.