Jose Antonio Reyes punished an error from Edwin van der Sar as Arsenal narrowly beat Fulham at Loftus Road this afternoon to move within a single game of completing the whole season unbeaten.
The Spanish forward punished a dreadful mistake from Fulham’s experienced goalkeeper, who had earlier made a fine save to deny Freddie Ljungberg an early opener, when van der Sar attempted to dribble his way out of trouble after miscontrolling a backpass from Martin Djetou. Reyes closed down the Fulham goalkeeper, won the ball in a tackle and clipped his finish into the empty net to give the Gunners a lead they never seriously looked like relinquishing.
Fulham did put up a real fight with Sean Davis and Sylvain Legwinski grafting hard in a tough midfield battle. Jens Lehmann saved smartly from former Arsenal winger Luis Boa Morte after Junichi Inamoto had threaded a good ball through the heart of the visiting defence. Steed Malbranque went close to an equaliser twice before the break – curling a lovely effort agonisingly wide from the edge of the area and seeing another attempt well held by Lehmann.
Malbranque went close with an acrobatic overhead kick in the second half but Fulham were short of a focal point in the final third until Chris Coleman sent on Brian McBride and Collins John. Arsenal found more space on the break as the hosts committed bodies forward, with Reyes firing into the side netting after one rapid counter attack, and Thierry Henry saw a free-kick tipped over the bar by van der Sar.
Arsenal’s resolute defence held out despite increasing Fulham pressure. Ashley Cole threw himself in front of a Sylvain Legwinski shot to preserve their advantage, before Moritz Volz came within fractions of scoring against his old club and Malbranque almost diverted a clever flick from McBride goalwards. It just wasn’t Fulham’s day but the home fans stood at the final whistle anyway in recognition of a fine first season under Chris Coleman. The Cottagers will comfortably finish in the top half and have Premier League football to enjoy when they return to Craven Cottage next season, which makes all those predictions of relegation in pre-season look very silly indeed.
FULHAM (4-5-1): van der Sar; Volz, Bocanegra, Pearce, Goma; Djetou (John 58), Inamoto (McBride 58), Davis, Legwinski, Malbranque; Boa Morte. Subs (not used): Crossley, Hutton, Petta.
ARSENAL (4-3-3): Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Pires (Clichy 78), Vieira, Parlour; Ljungberg (Keown 87), Reyes (Aliadiere 71), Henry. Subs (not used): Stack, Bergkamp.
BOOKED: Vieira, Henry, Parlour.
GOAL: Reyes (9).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).