Fulham 2 Arsenal 1
Fulham away has long been my favourite away trip of the season. Usually the fixture seems to arrive, quite happily, at one of the bookends of the season, leaving us with passable spring weather. Not so on this occasion, with the razzmatazz and hype of Christmas and New Year consigned to the loft for another year, the Boathouse pub on Putney Bridge seemed a good a place as any to slay the January blues. Arriving shortly after 2pm, a throng of Arsenal bodies began to arrive as kickoff drew near.
The walk through a windswept Bishop`s Park as dusk began to blanket the River Thames made for a picturesque and serene entrance into the ground. Largely due to the volume of Gooners that take up Red Action`s excellent booze cruise idea (they catch a boat from Westminster to Putney aboard a boat with enough alcohol to sate Oliver Reed), voices are always in fine fettle in the Putney End. The match was a matter of seconds old before a triumphant chorus of "Thierry`s coming home" began to boom around South West London. Together with the less complimentary, "Harry Redknapp, pays tax when he wants."
Nothing less than 3 points would suffice, but it was surprising to see a lack of rotation in the side. Increasingly one gets the impression that the manager simply doesn`t trust a number of his squad players. In the first half however, Arsenal dominated proceedings. The warning signs were there for the Cottagers after just 6 minutes. Van Persie`s swerving corner flew all the way to the back post, where Gervinho read the flight of the ball better than any other player, but could only hook the ball over from a difficult angle. The Ivorian was unlucky not to yield a penalty too when he collected van Persie`s pass in the left channel, cut inside Senderos on the edge of the six yard box and was clearly tripped. But Lee Probert elected against awarding a penalty.
Over the last 5 games we`ve had penalty claims waved away ranging from clear to stonewall, but have only been awarded one. I`m not going to don my tin hat and claim conspiracy or anything silly like that. Afterall, I`m not a Liverpool fan. It just seems to be an indication of the kind of thing that happens when your form arrests slightly. But the Gunners did move into a deserved lead after 21 minutes. Gervinho nudged the ball to Ramsey from the right flank. The Welshman`s cross took a kind ricochet off of Stephen Kelly, lifting it nicely into the path of the unmarked Laurent Koscielny, who kept a cool head to despatch the header and his first goal of the season. "Laurent Koscielny, he scores when he wants" came the ironic cry from the away stand.
Just 2 minutes later, the Gunners had the ideal chance to kill the game. A quick one touch move from defence to attack saw Walcott cut the ball back to Ramsey 15 yards from goal. His shot was beaten away by Stockdale, Song and Senderos grappled for the rebound, it deflected quickly towards goal, only for Stockdale to somehow claw it onto the post. Gervinho`s cut back from the rebound found no willing body to divert the ball into the net. Fulham were sparked back into the life by the let off, Bryan Ruiz conducting operations from their left hand side. He weaved between Song and Gervinho, inching himself to the edge of the Arsenal box and his left foot shot flew just wide with Szczesny beaten.
But Arsenal continued to pile on the pressure and nearly created a very well worked second when stand in left back Francis Coquelin shimmied his way around Bryan Ruiz and sent in a low cross which van Persie met at the front post with a deft toe poke towards goal; but Stockdale was equal to the effort. Stockdale was equally alert to Aaron Ramsey`s fulminating strike from the corner of the penalty box in first half stoppage time. At half time, the pervasive feeling was that Arsenal could and should have stretched their lead. That lack of ruthlessness proved to be their undoing once again.
But Arsenal emerged a different animal in the second half. A shy, wounded kitten. I don`t think I recall a single shot on Fulham`s goal. Frankly, they just looked knackered. Mikel Arteta has played every minute of every game since sitting out the Olympiacos game. Tomas Rosicky is fit again and playing well. Theo Walcott has been drastically out of form since the Everton home match. Arshavin and Benayoun sat on the bench. Robin van Persie has played as many minutes as Arteta over the last month. But we know we don`t have a viable back up option for him. This being the case, you wonder if Wenger should be reassessing his squad if he really won`t use it. For what it`s worth, I think the likes of Benayoun, Arshavin and Rosicky are more than capable.
Fulham began to apply the pressure as Arsenal sat deeper, having made a very early resolution to sit on the one goal advantage. Djourou drew a first booking on 63 minutes for a poor tackle through the back of Dembele. Jol immediately sent for tricky left winger Frei from the bench to test the Swiss defender`s resolve. From the resulting free kick, Murphy curled in a fine delivery, Szczesny came and clawed at thin air, leaving Senderos to head agonisingly wide with the goal gaping. The pressure was building. Arsenal just could not keep the ball, with the usually tired Arteta unable chuffing with fatigue and van Persie too rundown to provide an outlet. Ruiz`s left wing cross saw Dempsey climb above Mertesacker to head inches wide. Kelly`s searching ball was flicked on by Dempsey to Zamora, he touched the ball into the path of Bryan Ruiz but Szczesny saved with his legs.
Arsenal were hanging on and their task was made even more difficult on 75 minutes. Dempsey again found Zamora in the left channel; Djourou had his arm on Zamora`s shoulder. Whilst it`s true Zamora hardly took much convincing to eat some turf, Djourou`s hand was up and he was asking for trouble. Probert reached for a second yellow card and Arsenal were down to ten. They simply couldn`t hold out. Ruiz`s corner from the left was misjudged by Szczesny; he could only palm the ball into the path of Senderos. One ex Arsenal player headed the ball into the direction of another as Steve Sidwell came steaming in to equalise from close range. It was now simply about not losing.
But it was an objective the away side failed to achieve. With 92 minutes played, Arsenal had a goal kick. Van Persie and Benayoun, being the experienced players they are, turned their backs and walked slowly up the pitch, expecting the keeper to take his time. Szczesny became visibly annoyed by the lack of options and totally lost his head, angrily punting the ball straight back to Riise at left back, who didn`t have an Arsenal player within 15 yards of him. It was one of the few times in his Arsenal career I could say that Szczesny looked the callow youth, when the sensible thing to do would have been to have taken his time with the kick. The ball was worked to the right to Stephen Kelly. His cross to the back post saw Squillaci needing to mark two and under pressure, he could only head the ball back across the box, where Coquelin had gone to sleep and allowed Zamora to peel off. Zamora picked a peach of a volley out of the air and into the bottom corner. There was no time to reply, indeed, the players struggled to summon the energy to reach the tunnel when the full time whistle sounded.
In the end, I think the lack of trust in the squad players was the undoing and the manager needs to think about that. A lot of our players looked like it was a game too far for them in a busy period. I accept the point that this was Fulham`s 31st game of the season, compared to our 35th, but I think we`ve tried to muddle through the holiday period making as few changes as possible. In a short space of time, it just proved to be too much and ultimately, that means the manager didn`t use his resources properly. The good news is that the Leeds game will likely see the aforementioned squad players entrusted, but I think there are good players in reserve that we can lean on. The margins for error given our catastrophic start to the season are non existent now. Tough games with Swansea and United must yield 6 points or else the top 4 looks a dim and distant prospect. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 20.DJOUROU, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 39.COQUELIN, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY (18.Squillaci `84), 14.WALCOTT (7.Rosicky `65), 27.GERVINHO (30.Benayoun `74), 10.v.PERSIE(c ). Unused; 1.Almunia, 23.Arshavin, 29.Chamakh, 49.Miquel.
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