Arsenal maintained their place at the top of the Premier League with a 2-0 victory over Fulham and a performance of the type that is becoming something of a habit in the Gunners’ title challenge. A brace from Santi Cazorla was enough for Arsene Wenger’s side to maintain their remarkable record of having dropped just two points against sides outside the Premier League’s top seven since their opening day defeat to Aston Villa.
So many Arsenal victories were achieved just like this one. There were large spells of the game where Arsenal were far from their best and the opposition might have fancied their chances of getting something from the game. But, as against Aston Villa on Monday night, and countless more times this season, Arsenal had the ability to dig in when they were below par before carving their opponents open in a devastating spell.
Against Villa there were two goals in a minute, here, after a lackluster first half, there were two goals in five minutes around the hour mark. Afterward there was no way back for a Fulham side that had grown in confidence in the opening period but failed to make the most of a couple of openings. Devastating efficiency is not something that has often been associated with Arsenal sides in the past, but that’s exactly what they are right now. And if they keep disposing of the Premier League’s lesser lights in such manner then, at the very least, they will be right in contention to end their decade-long wait for a Premier League title when they go head-to-head with their nearest challengers in a torrid run of games in March. Whether they can end their poor record against the League’s big guns could well prove decisive. But there remains a possibility that they might not need to.
Arsenal had actually gotten off to a quick start and it appeared that it wouldn’t be long before Fulham’s defenses were breached. In just the fourth minute some neat interplay between Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil got the latter in down the right of the box. The German elected to try and knock it across the six-yard box for Olivier Giroud, but Brede Hangeland was on hand to clear.
Arsenal continued to have plenty of possession and found it easy enough to get into the final third against a Fulham side happy to sit back in the early stages. But once there, the home side lacked the tempo in their passing and movement off the ball to prize open a well organized Fulham side. A couple of wayward shots from Serge Gnabry from 25 yards out summed up their predicament.
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Meanwhile, Fulham came out of their shell midway through the period and by the end of the first half were looking at least as likely to be the side to break the deadlock. The closest they came was when Bacary Sagna could only head out Dimitar Berbatov’s cross to Steve Sidwell 25 yards out and the midfielder’s well-struck effort had to be tipped over by Wojciech Szczesny.
Berbatov was becoming increasingly influential as the link man for Fulham and his square pass put Alexander Kacaniklic through the middle for what should have been a good chance, but the Swede’s touch let him down. Arsenal did at least force Maarten Stekelenburg into a save before the break when Fulham’s keeper did well to get down and block a snap shot from Sagna after a blocked free-kick, but it had been a poor opening 45 minutes.
The second half was a different story. Arsenal came out with far greater intensity and soon had Fulham pegged back deep inside their own half. Stekelenburg parried away an effort from Gnabry but they the visitors could not hold out for long. There was a miraculous escape when, from Cazorla’s free-kick, debutant Dan Burn cleared off the line from Gnabry before Laurent Koscielny somehow missed a simple chance and then Gnabry saw a second effort blocked in dramatic circumstances. Yet, it was to prove the most temporary of reprieves.
Just moments later Cazorla cut in from the left and kept on moving as Giroud found Wilshere and then the ball came back to the Spaniard, who produced a fine finish despite losing his balance.
With a full head of steam, Arsenal were keen to get a second goal that was always likely to be decisive. It was not long in coming. Again Cazorla was the man to provide it, this time after receiving Hangeland’s headed clearance a little more than 20 yards out, taking a touch and then just getting enough on a left-footed strike that went through the legs of Sidwell and left Stekelenburg unable to get across quickly enough. However, both Stekelenburg and Fulham can have justifiable complaints about the goal being awarded with the keeper’s view clearly impinged by the presence of Giroud in an offside position.
The damage had been done, although substitute Lukas Podolski twice came close to firing in a third, most dramatically with a powerful shot that Stekelenburg tipped onto the post.
Some defensive vulnerability was shown up in the Arsenal backline late on when another substitute, Darren Bent run in behind Per Mertesacker, but, after getting the benefit of a bounce off of Szczesny, the man on loan from Aston Villa shot into the side netting with the goal gaping. While the big German defender’s lack of pace can still prove a concern, the fact that no side in the Premier League has conceded fewer goals than Arsenal shows that they continue to cover it well.