Given how rare wins at Arsenal are, it’s tempting to consider this as a missed opportunity. But given the Gunners’ propensity for late winners against Fulham, a point is nothing to be sniffed at. And as this London derby was billed as a clash between a sinking ship and an irrepressible force – with Robin van Persie’s predatory instincts rightly lauded before a ball was kicked – a draw is a more than creditable result.
Fulham’s endeavour more than merited a point in an open London derby, which they might have won were it not for Thomas Vermaelen’s late header. The Belgian stole in at the far post to head home a deep cross from Theo Walcott with eight minutes remaining, but it only served to cancel out his earlier own goal as Fulham took a surprise lead at the Emirates. The Belgian defender’s attempted clearance beat his own goalkeeper after Danny Murphy’s superb through ball picked out the marauding John Arne Riise in the Arsenal penalty area. Fulham could have clung onto all three points were it not for Vermaelen’s late intervention, with Mark Schwarzer saving superbly from Aaron Ramsey and Johan Djorou and Chris Baird, who was outstanding at right back, clearing off line after Theo Walcott had danced past three Fulham defenders before squaring for van Persie.
Fulham were disciplined in defence against an Arsenal side who appeared a little sluggish after their European exploits against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions’ League in midweek. Martin Jol’s side largely managed to stifle the prolific van Persie, who was a peripheral figure for much of the evening, although they needed a little stroke of luck to progress through the first half with their clean sheet intact. An early strike from Andrey Arshavin was chalked off by an offside flag as he drifted beyond the Fulham defence in the fourth minute and Schwarzer spread himself well to deny the influential Ramsey after a flowing move that had featured van Persie and Alex Song. The Welsh teenager lofted horribly over the bar from close range after being picked out by Walcott and for a while it seemed as though Arsenal’s profligacy would cost them dear.
Fulham operated largely on the break, but were indebted to the work ethic of the excellent Dickson Etuhu, who expertly anchored the midfield, and the pace of Moussa Dembele, who frequently tested the Arsenal defence. The former AZ Alkmaar winger was Fulham’s most potent goal threat, spinning to shoot wide – with the aid of a deflection – and bringing a fine save out of Wojciech Szczesny after a flowing move involving Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora. The England striker snatched at his only real opportunity of the first half, shooting wide from acute angle.
The visitors took the lead on 65 minutes, although Baird’s goal-line clearance from van Persie had preserved parity moments earlier. The goal arrived after a concerted spell of Fulham pressure with Murphy’s dinked forward ball finding Riise raiding forward from left back. With the former Liverpool full-back and Zamora in close attendance, Vermaelen panicked and his sliding tackle took the ball beyond Szczesny and into the bottom corner of the net. Zamora had a superb finish ruled out for offside moments after Fulham took the lead and the Whites’ defensive qualities were sorely tested after that.
Arsenal had plenty of possession but didn’t unduly trouble Schwarzer. The Australian goalkeeper, who was rumoured to be close to signing for the Gunners last season, did brilliantly to keep out Djorou’s header at point-blank range from a corner but Fulham fell agonisingly short of a first-ever win at Arsenal. Vermaelen arrived unmarked to guide Walcott’s right-wing cross into the far corner with nine minutes remaining but, despite a frenetic end to the game, neither side could force a winner. It was a point that would have been far more pleasing for Jol than his old adversary Arsene Wenger.
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Djorou, Santos, Mertesacker (Diaby 69), Vermaelen; Song, Arteta; Walcott, Arshavin (Chamakh 75), Ramsey (Gervinho 68); van Persie. Subs (not used): Fabianski, Koscielny, Frimpong, Benayoun.
GOAL: Vermaelen (82).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy; Dempsey, Dembele, Ruiz (Kasami 75); Zamora (Johnson 78). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Briggs, Gecov, Frei.
BOOKED: Zamora, Etuhu, Senderos.
GOAL: Vermaelen (og 65).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).