I was chatting to a friend of mine at the back of the Hammersmith End before the game this afternoon. He was in glass-half empty mode, wondering how Fulham had managed to muster six points from our Premier League start and he was well within his rights to wonder after witnessing a dreadful performance up at Wolves last weekend. It stands to reason then that this was probably our most complete ninenty minutes of the campaign – and it was a game which Arsenal nicked from our grasp.
It was settled by a defensive mistake from Paul Konchesky and a clincial finish by Robin van Persie, but the familiar scoreline of 1-0 to the Arsenal hardly tells the whole story. Fulham were far from the charitable hosts that they were in the previous London derby – which turned out to be a leisurely Sunday stroll for Chelsea – and probably merited a point for their energetic endeavour.
They might have gone one too had not been for a few splendid saves by Arsenal’s young stand-in goalkeeper Vino Mennone. Third in the pecking order behind Manuel Almunia and Lukas Fabianski, the Italian produced three top-drawer saves to keep a remarkable clean sheet and leave Bobby Zamora, who he denied twice with brilliant reaction stops, scratching his head in frustration.
He made two fine saves in quick succession as Fulham dominated the first half. Mennone flung himself full length to keep out Andy Johnson’s glancing header and then recovered to block Clint Dempsey’s follow-up. The American should have scored fropm close range but it was still a brilliant instinctive block. Fulham’s fluency could have been disrupted by the early departure of Damien Duff but Zoltan Gera picked up from where he left off at Eastlands to turn in an impressive performance as a substitute. The Hungarian might have capped it with a goal but his low shot was palmed away by Mannone as Fulham sought to apply the finishing touch to a flowing move down the right.
Arsenal looked sluggish in possession but they were prolifigate in front of goal. Both Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin skipped past defenders with ease but lifted their shots wastefully over from good positions. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Arsene Wenger was happy to get his troops into the dressing room level at the break.
That they broke the deadlock after half time was something of a surprise. Zamora had drilled a cross-cum-shot wide as Fulham looked to continue the first half tempo that had so beffudled Wenger’s team, but the decisive goal came at the other end and out of nothing. Konchesky was culpable with a poor ball forward but Fabregas’ control and vision set van Persie away and the Dutchman took a searching pass and fired it past Mark Schwarzer almost in an instant.
Arsenal were lifted by the goal and briefly threatened to settle the contest. The lanky Nicklas Bendtner forced Schwarzer into a fingertip save, but Fulham then resumed their assault on the Gunners’ goal. Zamora did wonderfully well to create a chance for Johnson but Mannone clawed away his goalbound header. Zamora should have equalised later from close range but was denied by the goalkeeper’s cat-like reflexes and quite how Mannone managed to keep out his late header only the Italian will know.
Wins for the sides around us might make the league table a little less palatable over breakfast tomorrow morning but if Fulham replicate this performance over the course of the season they shouldn’t find themselves in a relegation scrap.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu (Greening 83), Murphy, Duff (Gera 9), Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Baird, Riise, Kamara.
BOOKED: Murphy, Zamora, Pantsil, Konchesky.
ARSENAL (4-3-3): Mannone; Sagna, Clichy, Gallas, Vermaelen; Diaby, Song, Fabregas; Bendtner, Arshavin (Rosicky 68), van Persie (Eboue 83). Subs (not used): Szczensny, Silvestre, Gibbs, Ramsey, Vela.
GOAL: van Persie (52).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (Yorkshire).