At first glance, this appears a routine win for the champions over Fulham at Craven Cottage. That ended up being the reality, but the scoreline barely told the story here as Chris Coleman’s side competed creditability for 45 minutes and would have been in front not for a bewildering refereeing performance from Mark Halsey. The man in the middle awarded the home side a penalty for a foul by Ashley Cole on Andy Cole and then changed his mind after being pressurised by the Arsenal players to consult with assistance and ruled out a header from Collins John for a questionable push.
Halsey had to escorted off the field by a phalanx of security guards at half time and the normally placid Cottage crowd was mutinous. Chris Coleman put it plainly after the final time whistle. “He was crap. He said that he disallowed the penalty because of the reaction of my players and the Arsenal players. Did anyone see my players ask him not to give a penalty?”
Arsenal appeared weary and affected by Fulham’s physicality and adventurous approach, but they settled once Jose Anotonio Reyes was introduced after an hour. The Spaniard had an immediate impact, starting the move that saw Thierry Henry release Freddie Ljungberg with a sumptuous pass and the Swede rolled an unerring finish into the far corner. It took just three minutes for Arsenal to double their lead. A lovely interchange between Dennis Bergkamp and Henry put Ljungberg in the clear and, his keenness to avert the danger, Zat Knight diverted the ball beyond Edwin van der Sar.
Reyes added a far more convincing look to the scoreline when he sauntered away from the Fulham backline and tucked an assured finish past van der Sar six minutes later – but 3-0 was exceptionally harsh on Fulham. They had posed Arsenal serious questions in the first period, with ex-Gunner Luis Boa Morte excellent on the left wing. Andy Cole looked favourite to beat Jens Lehmann when he burst onto Sylvain Legwinski’s through ball and was upended by his namesake Ashley. It looked a clear penalty, and Halsey agreed, until he overturned his decision after the Arsenal players sent him in the direction of his assistant, and awarded a drop ball.
The official also waved away a convincing Arsenal shout for a spot-kick when Moritz Volz brought down Henry and controversy followed him again when he chalked off John’s emphatic header for an apparent push on Koulo Toure. The implications of Halsey’s post-match suggestions that he was influenced by the players in changing his decision are huge – and could encourage players to ramp up their protests. All in all, it was a shambolic display of refereeing.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Van der Sar; Volz, Bocanegra, Knight, Pearce; Diop, Pembridge, Legwinski (Radzinski 76); John, Boa Morte (McBride 83), Andy Cole. Subs (not used): Crossley, Goma, McKinlay.
BOOKED: van der Sar, Legwinski.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Ashley Cole, Cygan, Toure; Vieira (Fabregas 75), Silva, Ljungberg (Pennant 73), Pires (Reyes 61); Bergkamp, Henry. Subs (not used): Almunia, Clichy.
BOOKED: Vieira, Fabregas.
GOALS: Ljungberg (62), Knight (o.g. 65), Reyes (71).