Arsenal 3-3 Fulham
Saturday’s pulsating match against Fulham couldn’t have ended in more dramatic fashion as Phil Dowd blew the final whistle seconds after Mikel Arteta had seen his penalty saved by Mark Schwarzer to deny Arsenal victory. As a result, Gunners fans couldn’t help feeling extremely frustrated at the squandered opportunity and failure to take all three points from a game in which their side had led 2-0. Yet when reflecting on the match it would be very difficult to make a case for Arsenal having merited a win.
With Jack Wilshere suspended, following his red card in the away defeat to Manchester United, Francis Coqulein started the game at the base of the midfield. In theory this would provide more of a screen for the Arsenal back four, with the young Frenchman being more naturally defensive minded than his central midfield teammates Cazorla and Arteta. Yet Arsenal’s main defensive problems appear to be on their left hand side, with Lukas Podolski at times neglecting his defensive responsibilities and failing to track back. Kieran Gibbs’ injury has not helped matters either, as before the Englishman’s enforced spell on the side-lines, the Gunners defence appeared to be a solid unit. With Thomas Vermaelen filling in at left back, as he did against Schalke, the home side still did not appear capable of stemming the Fulham attack from this side of the field. In fact, the away team started the match brighter, looking dangerous every time they attacked and could have taken an early lead through Brian Ruiz, but the Costa Rican’s deflected effort sailed just over the bar.
However, with only 11 minutes gone and slightly against the run of play, Olivier Giroud headed Arsenal into the lead from a Theo Walcott corner. The Frenchman managed to evade his marker and timed his run to perfection, expertly steering a powerful header on goal, which Schwarzer could only parry into the back of the net. Although the Gunners weren’t anywhere near their fluent best, they managed to double their lead in the 26th minute through Podolski. With Fulham down to 10 men due to Kieran Richardson’s injury, Arsenal attacked down the right flank. A forward ball which should have been easily cleared, managed to squirm through to Arteta on the edge of the box, following a mix up in the Fulham defence and the Spaniard drove forward before sending a low cross into the box for Podolski to steer home. In a strange twist to proceedings, the two goal lead did not seem to give Arsenal the confidence to play their own game and dominate the game. In fact the home side appeared very nervous, as their play became sloppy, conceding possession far too easily.
The fact that Dimitar Berbatov reduced the deficit only 6 minutes after Podolski’s strike did not help matters either. The Bulgarian striker was standing right in front of Vito Mannone as the visitors prepared to take a corner, but somehow was afforded far too much space and time to head the ball unchallenged, into the net. From an Arsenal perspective, it was an extremely soft goal to give away, the defensive cohesion and stability which was so impressive during the first three games of the season, have since disappeared, leaving behind the same horrific defensive mistakes which have blighted recent seasons. Suddenly the pressure was on and the Arsenal defence simply could not handle it. Unsurprisingly, Fulham restored parity before the half time break thanks to an attack which originated down the Gunners’ left flank. A simple forward ball from Reither picked out Berbatov, on the edge of the Arsenal box, with Podolski too slow to track his run. The Bulgarian had the time to lay the ball back for Kacaniklic to head goal wards. The header was not powerful at all, but Vito Mannone was unable to scramble back across his line to keep it out and Fulham were back on level terms. And it could have been even worse, just before the half time whistle, as Dejagah’ attempt to flick the ball in from John Arne Riise’s low cross, resulted in the ball falling to the feet of Berbatov whose shot was blocked by Per Mertesacker.
The second half started as the first had ended, with Fulham in the ascendancy. Wenger decided to replace Coquelin with Ramsey in order to address this, but the Welshman’s constant dithering in possession resulted in him almost being sent off as on two occasions he was easily dispossessed and then pulled down his opponent. Fulham completed their turn around in the 67th minute as Arteta was caught in possession by Ruiz and then brought him down inside the penalty area. Berbatov was coolness personified as he waited until the very last minute for Mannone to move one way before dispatching his penalty in the opposite corner.
Arsenal were now on the ropes and with the home crowd on their backs, could have even conceded a fourth. The Gunners appeared to be down and out, but then Giroud sparked them back into life. Having been put through on goal, the Frenchman steered his shot past Schwarzer but the ball hit the post, with the rebound falling straight to Walcott. The Englishman immediately crossed the ball into the box and Giroud’s excellent header evaded Schwarzer and hit the back of the net.
The Gunners now had the impetus and surged forward in search of the winner. Fulham were pressed back into their own half but were always dangerous on the counter attack. Giroud squandered a wonderful opportunity to seal his hat trick in the dying minutes, misdirecting Sagna’s cross when he had a free header and should have at least tested the goalkeeper. Then in the very last minute of the game Riether was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball inside the area and Arsenal were given a wonderful opportunity to win the game. Up stepped Mikel Arteta, but the Spaniard’s penalty was well saved by Schwarzer and the game ended 3-3.
While the events of the last few minutes may lead many to believe that the home side were unlucky not to win this match, the reality is Arsenal were simply not good enough once again. Arsene Wenger has since bizarrely declared that his side can still mount a championship challenge and herein lies the problem. The manager simply will not accept that his current squad will struggle to make it into the top four and as a result, the changes required to improve this squad will not be made. Even the most optimistic Arsenal fan must realise that we are all in for a long hard season.