A goalkeeping masterclass from Edwin van der Sar saw Fulham cling on to an unlikely point at Highbury as all-conquering Arsenal failed to score for the first time in 47 home matches and relinquished top spot.
Dutch legend van der Sar produced a string fine saves to help Fulham claim a precious point in north London. He did brilliantly to keep out Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires. Arsenal were also heavily culpable and Arsene Wenger’s side should properly have put a contest that they dominated to put well before half time. Pires and Henry led Moritz Volz, who is on loan with Fulham from the Gunners, a merry dance down the Arsenal left but, for once, their much vaunted forward line failed to convert one of 27 shots in toal.
Arsenal’s first chance came the way of Kolo Toure, who failed to hit the target from right in front of the Fulham goal after Pascal Cygan had won a near post flick on. The horribly isolated Louis Saha surrendered possession dangerously inside his own half and Freddie Ljungberg tested van der Sar’s agility from distance. The Fulham goalkeeper then bravely stood up to the flying Swede after Bergkamp had threaded a ball through the visiting defence.
Henry then prised open the Fulham defence after cutting the ball back from the left but Robert Pires, possibly feeling the aftereffects of a hefty Saha challenge, somehow contrived to shoot wide of goal. Pires then laid on a good chance for Henry by way of apology but van der Sar was equal to the Frenchman’s measured finish. Fulham’s experienced goalkeeper then bailed out his overworked rearguard again, twice foiling Henry in quick succession, and also thwarting Bergkamp and Ljungberg as Arsenal ramped up the pressure before the break.
The game followed a similar pattern in the second period. van der Sar was called into action by Bergkamp within two minutes of the restart and, when Ashley Cole, sent a glorious ball over the top of the Fulham defence, the goalkeeper was there again first to repel Bergkamp and then stop Ljungberg’s follow up. Wenger threw on both Kanu and Jeremie Aliadiere in search of an elusive breakthrough but as Arsenal poured forward, there was always the possibility that space would open up for Fulham on the break. That scenario presented itself when Sean Davis sent in an inviting cross but Steed Malbranque fluffed his lines, heading an easy chance horribly wide. Arsenal gathered themselves for a final assault on the Fulham goal, but Coleman’s well-organised defence stood firm, with Henry and Bergkamp woefully off target with the only half chances that came their way in the final quarter. Wenger ruefully acknowledged that van der Sar was ‘unbeatable’ afterwards – and nobody could dispute the accuracy of that sentiment after one of the most complete goalkeeping performances in the history of the English top flight.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Lehmann; Toure, Campbell, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg (Aliadiere 79), Silva (Kanu 67), Edu, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry. Subs (not used): Clichy, Stack, Hoyte.
FULHAM (4-5-1): van der Sar; Volz, Bonnissel, Knight, Melville; Legwinski, Clark, Davis, Inamoto, Malbranque, Inamoto; Saha (Hayles 76). Subs (not used): Crossley, Djetou, Goma, Sava.
REFEREE: Graham Barber (Hertfordshire).