Arsenal show they are made of the right stuff with win at Fulham
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
Premier League: Fulham 0 Arsenal 1
Per Mertesacker’s goal saw Arsenal return to third place in the Premier League table after both sides ended with 10 men at Craven Cottage.
Mertesacker’s 43rd-minute close-range header ensured the Gunners took the points, but referee Andre Marriner ensured he would dominate the Saturday night punditry with his decisions to send off Fulham’s Steve Sidwell after njust 13 minutes and then Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud in the closing moments of the game.
Neither decision was clear-cut, although Sidwell’s tackle on Mikel Arteta was dangerous, but Giroud appeared to get the ball when tackling Stanislav Manolev and Arsenal will surely appeal against the three-match ban it would warrant.
Despite playing against 10 men for three-quarters of the game, however, this was a real struggle for Arsene Wenger’s side, who were grateful for an offside decision to rule out a Manolev goal and some robust defending, especially from Laurent Koscielny.
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The win send them back above Chelsea, who travel to Anfield on Sunday, and five points clear of Tottenham, who play the first of two games in hand against Manchester City at White Hart Lane.
This could prove a crucial win, then, but it came from a lethargic Arsenal display.Wenger had hinted that a third game inside a week for Jack Wilshere would maybe be too much, and the 21-year-old started on the bench, replaced in the centre of Arsenal’s attacking trio by the fit-again Tomas Rosicky.
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The only other change from the midweek draw with Everton was at left-back, where Nacho Monreal stepped up in place of Kieran Gibbs.
Arsenal had enjoyed the majority of the early possession, when the complexion of the game changed entirely on 13 minutes.
From a seemingly innocuous moment when the ball broke loose just inside the Arsenal half, Sidwell lunged in to tackle Arteta and clearly caught the Spaniard on the ankle.
Unbeknown to Sidwell but clearly seen by the whole of Craven Cottage, Marriner pulled out his red card only to shield it behind his back. Once the former Arsenal midfielder was on his feet, he was given his marching orders.
The challenge looked late rather than malicious, and while it was undoubtedly worth a yellow card, a red did seem a little harsh for what was the first genuine foul of the game.
But Sidwell trudged off and Fulham were left to reorganise, with Bryan Ruiz slotting into central midfield. The sense of injustice briefly fired the home side and they created the first genuine chance of the game when Dimitar Berbatov was sent clear by Urby Emanuelson only to see his shot well saved by Wojcicech Szczesny.
The Bulgarian, who scored twice at the Emirates in November’s 3-3 draw, should really have done better. Alex Kacaniklic broke dangerously on Fulham’s left flank twice, leaving Arsenal to scramble clear. It was very hard to know that the visitors had the man advantage.
Giroud had a point to prove after an avalanche of criticism for his failure to score against Everton earlier in the week, and he almost did so on 35 minutes, turning smartly before unleashing a low left-footed drive which thudded off the foot of Mark Schwarzer’s left-hand upright with the Australian keeper well beaten.
But Fulham hit back with a rasping shot from distance from Emanuelson, which Szczesny shovelled untidily around his near post. Fulham still looked the likelier scorers, but then Arsenal took the lead with a real sucker punch goal before the break.
The Cameroonian midfielder Eyong Enoh brought down Aaron Ramsey and was booked for his troubles, and when Walcott floated in the resulting free-kick, Koscielny headed it back across goal and Mertesacker had the simple task of stooping to nod it into the net.
A goal up and a man up at half-time was probably more than Wenger could have wished for, but the patchy display from his side gave Fulham plenty of hope for the second half that all was not lost.
After the break Arsenal started to dominate possession, as you would expect against 10 men, without really creating much in the way of chances.
Mertesacker stayed up from a corner and almost got on the end of a Rosicky cross, but at the other end Berbatov was keeping the Arsenal defence preoccupied.
But Fulham were tiring in the April sunshine, and the sight of Wilshere and Lukas Podolski coming off the bench with 20 minutes remaining hardly encouraged them.
But Emanuelson, the Dutchman who arrived on loan from AC Milan in January, was enbjoying his best game in a Fulham shirt, while Ruiz was also starting to get more involved, the Colombian drawing a foul from Ramsey which earned the Welshman a booking and Fulham a free-kick on the edge of the box.
Ruiz drove it goalwards and Szczesny spilled it into the path of Manolev, who tapped it into the net only for the home celebrations to be cut short by Sian Massey’s correctly-raised offside flag.
That was a warning sign for the Gunners, who had paid the price of sitting on a 1-0 lead here last season when Johan Djourou’s red card was followed by two late goals.
Arsenal were simply not utilising their one-man advantage, not stretching the play enough to make Fulham work hard. The arrival of Wilshere and Podolski did help them to that end, and from one crossfield move Santi Cazorla found the space to drill in a shot which was well blocked by the hulking frame of Brede Hangeland.
Arsenal were far from cruising, and when Marriner evened up the numbers by sending off Giroud for what looked a fair challenge on Manolev, the pressure was cranked up another level for three minutes of injury time.
But the Gunners held firm, Kosicelny and Mertesacker heading away a torrent of crosses and Monreal hacking clear deep into injury time.
When the final whistle was blown Arsenal celebrated a third successive away league win, and one that could prove vital in the final reckoning.
Fulham: Schwarzer, Manolev, Senderos, Hangeland, Richardson, Sidwell, Enoh, Emanuelson (Frei, 87), Kacaniklic (Petric, 85), Ruiz, Berbatov.
Subs not used: Etheridge, Riise, Karagounis, Hughes, Rodallega.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Arteta, Ramsey, Walcott (Wilshere, 71), Rosicky (Podolski, 71) , Cazorla (Vermaelen, 90), Giroud.
Subs not used: Mannone, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, Gibbs.