Arsene Wenger was a relieved man after two late strikes ensured Arsenal escaped from Craven Cottage with all three points after Fulham threatened to punish the title chasers for failing to take their chances in a one-sided first half.

Steed Malbranque fired Jean Tigana’s side level early in the second half – wiping out the slender lead secured by Freddie Ljungberg’s seventeenth-minute opener, but not built upon by a wasteful Arsenal, who then rode their luck as the newly-promoted Cottagers put them under considerable pressure in a strong 20-minute spell. Salvation came in the familiar form of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, although the third goal arrived in the fourth minute of time added on after the Gunners had resorted to time wasting in attempt to secure what could have been a much routine victory.

This intriguing London derby drew most of its protagonists from across the Channel. French managerial royalty in Wenger and Tigana was joined by eleven of the foreign legion across the two sides and there were similarities in the playing style. Both teams pass the ball precisely and at pace, looking to come alive in the final third. Fulham were lively in attack themselves with three visiting players – Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown and Lauren – booked inside the first half hour for cynical fouls.

The Gunners shouldn’t have needed to be so cynical as they passed up several chances to extend their lead after Ljungberg fired home when Fulham had failed to clear their lines from a scruffy Henry free-kick. Henry then saw a sighter from 25 yards spilled at the feet of Francis Jeffers by Edwin van der Sar, but the Dutch goalkeeper recovered to whisk the ball away from the Arsenal’s new attacker just in the nick of time. van der Sar then tipped over another Henry effort before Jeffers failed to covert the Frenchman’s cut back and Ray Parlour greedily went for glory after a mazy dribble carried him into the area, with team-mates in far better postions.

Fulham hadn’t created much before the break as they were overwhelmed by Arsenal’s relentlessness. But a subtle tactical tweak from Tigana saw Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte deployed wider to allow Steed Malbranque to roam from an attacking midfield position. Those alterations paid dividends three minutes into the second half. Boa Morte burst down the left and bustled past Sol Campbell and, as Keown wandered towards the ball, fed Malbranque, who gleefully finished from eight yards.

Suddenly, the whole complexion of the contest had changed. John Collins produced a brilliant hooked pass to free Boa Morte again, but Cole blocked his ball across goal this time at the expense of a corner. Arsenal were rattled and Sylvain Legwinski rose to meet the dead ball delivery only to see his header somehow scrambled away off the ankle of a bemused David Seaman. Wenger conceded afterwards that was ‘the turning point’.

Arsenal roused themselves and retook the lead with eight minutes remaining. Ljungberg dribbled determinedly at the Fulham defence, who backed off fatefully, and the Swede produced a peach of a pass to free Henry. The Frenchman made no mistake this time – shooting low past van der Sar. Bergkamp, an audacious transfer target for Fulham in the summer, applied the coup de grace blasting fellow substitute Sylvain Wiltord’s pass high into the net to add a far too flattering look to the final scoreline.

FULHAM (4-4-2): van der Sar; Finnan, Brevett, Symons, Melville; Davis, Collins, Legwinski (Marlet 71), Malbranque; Saha, Boa Morte (Hayles 87). Subs (not used): Taylor, Ouaddoh, Clark.

BOOKED: Legwinski, Boa Morte, Symons.

GOAL: Malbranque (48).

ARSENAL (4-4-2): Seaman; Lauren, A. Cole, Keown, Campbell; Vieira, Parlour, Ljungberg, Pires (Wiltord 80); Henry (Grimandi 83), Jeffers (Bergkamp 74). Subs (not used): van Bronckhorst, Wright.

BOOKED: Vieira, Keown, Lauren, Parlour.

REFEREE: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).