Had Arsene Wenger agreed to part with a bit more cash two summers ago, Mark Schwarzer might have been guarding the other goal at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon. Arsenal baulked at Fulham’s valuation of their Australian goalkeeper, but Wenger might be ruing his miserly manner this evening after Schwarzer – now very much a veteran – sprung to his right to superbly save a stoppage-time spot-kick from Mikel Arteta and prevent the Gunners from pinching all three points at the end of a pulsating London derby.
The 40 year-old was as enraged as his team-mates at referee Phil Dowd’s decision to award a penalty in the final minute of added time after Andrei Arshavin’s cross struck Sascha Riether on his arm, but produced the best possible response – pushing away Arteta’s penalty – and proving his own point as well as preserving Fulham’s. Martin Jol’s side looked dead and buried after Oliver Giroud and Lukas Podolski had put the hosts two up inside 23 minutes, but Arsenal’s inability to hold onto a lead had cost them in Germany and that familiar frailty resurfaced here.
A resurgent Fulham, buoyed by the easiest header Dimitar Berbatov will score all season, were posing problems for the brittle Gunners’ back four long before the Bulgarian turned provider for substitute Alex Kacaniklic five minutes before half time and it came as little surprise when the ex-Spurs striker sent Vito Mannone the wrong way from the spot to give Fulham the lead midway through the second half after Mikel Arteta had hauled down the excellent Bryan Ruiz. That the visitors couldn’t cling on came as little surprise – Jol’s side have lost the most points from winning positions in the Premier League – and Giroud’s looping header after his drive came back off the far post set up the kind of frenzied finale that seems standard for Fulham on their travels this season.
That the Whites could even claim a legitimate share of the spoils owed much to their belief in the attacking arsenal Jol has assembled. They needed Berbatov’s bewitching brilliance – and his burgeoning link-up play with Ruiz – after failing to deal with Arsenal’s fast start. French striker Giroud nodded home Arsenal’s first headed league goal of the campaign having glided away from Aaron Hughes to meet Theo Walcott’s corner on 11 minutes. Leaving the former Montepellier forward unmarked was careless, but the defending for Arsenal’s second seemed more suited to the Paramount Channel than the Premier League. John Arne Riise fluffed a chance to clear and Podolski was afforded the freedom of Islington to end an eight game scoreless streak at the far post.
Jol’s side play far more football than Fulham used to away from Craven Cottage and Berbatov’s simple header from a Ruiz corner saw the belief return. The man who Jol prized away from Old Trafford for just £4m floated around the pitch with the simple serenity of someone spending a Saturday in a London park, but he sped away from Thomas Vermaelen to float over a cross that Kacaniklic, on earlier than expected after Kieran Richardson’s afternoon was curtailed by injury, headed home emphatically. Ruiz, who has quickly become Fulham’s creative hub, showed his steelier side to rob Arteta, who might agonise after this afternoon for years to come, and win the penalty that put the visitors in front.
Jol had hoped to field Mahamadou Diarra but the Malian missed out after failing a fitness test and his replacement Steve Sidwell was fortunate to stay on the field for a full ninety minutes against his first club. Booked in the first half for a mistimed lunge, Sidwell wasn’t shown a second yellow for bringing down Santi Carziola in full flight just before Phil Dowd pointed to the spot at the other end of the field. Fulham’s improbable comeback was punctured before anyone had time to take in the enormity of the turnaround, when Giroud’s low shot came back off the far post and the Frenchman was alert enough to flick Walcott’s cross over the recovering Schwarzer.
The final twenty minutes went from end to end. Schwarzer produced a sprawling stop to deny Giroud a hat-trick, whilst only a superbly timed saving tackle from Laurent Koscielny prevented Berbatov from pouncing a fine ball from Ashkan Dejagah, who lived up to the promise of his earlier cameos on his first start for Fulham. Arsenal badly wanted all three points to recover from a week that had already seen them squander a two-goal and but for Schwarzer’s superb stoppage-time heroics they would have had them. That, though, would have been harsh on Jol’s side, who are certainly easy on the eye if not the heart.
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Mannone; Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Mertesacker; Coquelin (Ramsey 56), Arteta; Podolski (Oxlade-Chamberlain 76), Walcott (Arshavin 85), Carzola; Giroud. Subs (not used): Szczensy, Jenkinson, Santos, Chamakh.
GOALS: Giroud (11, 69), Podolski (23).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell; Dejagah (Duff 85), Richardson (Kacaniklic 23), Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Karagounis, Rodallega, Petric.
BOOKED: Sidwell, Baird.
GOALS: Berbatov (29, pen 67), Kacaniklic (40).
REFEREE: Phil Dowd (Stoke-on-Trent).