The early-season Arsenal crisis appears to have been short-lived. Arsene Wenger insisted his players would bounce back from the shock of their opening day slip-up against Aston Villa and after a comprehensive Champions’ League victory in Istanbul and an impressive dismantling of Fulham during a torrential downpour at Craven Cottage, the Arsenal manager will be feeling far more content. The Gunners were far sharper than their flat hosts – and despite Darren Bent’s debut goal offering a more balanced look to the full-time scoreline – could have scored far more than the three they ultimately settled for.
Martin Jol introduced new signing Scott Parker into midfield but neither the former Tottenham man or Steve Sidwell were able to get close enough to Arsenal’s expressive midfield trio and Fulham’s expansive game plan gave the visitors plenty of opportunities to pick them off on the break. The surprise selection of John Arne Riise – given that a week ago he seemed set to be joining Werder Bremen on a free transfer – backfired with Theo Walcott thundering down the right wing to great effect. The England forced drew a fine save from stand-in goalkeeper David Stockdale and Riise had to hook an Oliver Giroud header off the line as Arsenal applied early pressure.
The opening goal was coming and there was little surprise – but a slice of good fortune – when it arrived in the fourteenth minute. The outstanding Aaron Ramsey, effervescent in midfield in front of the Welsh manager Chris Coleman, miscued a shot from the edge of the box that hit Giroud, and ricocheted kindly into the French striker’s path. As Fulham appealed in vain for an offside flag, Giroud quickly lifted the ball over the advancing Stockdale and wheeled away to celebrate his third goal in as many games.
That setback seemed to lift Fulham, who responded with their best period of the match. Dimitar Berbatov, largely well marshalled by Per Mertesacker and his makeshift central defensive partner Bacary Sagna for the most part, drifted into dangerous positions but the most eye-catching performance came from Adel Taraabt on his home debut. The on-loan QPR midfielder, happy to drift inside as well as attack the by-line proved a lively outlet down the left and drew a splendid save from Wojciech Szczesny after shooting from an acute angle. The Polish goalkeeper also did well to keep out the follow-up, although Damien Duff will feel he should have done better from close range. Parker also failed to make his debut with a goal – wasdtefully shooting over after being fed by a lovely touch from Berbatov.
Fulham’s fine ten minutes soon fizzled out and Arsenal, even without the rested Jack Wilshere, began to retake control of the contest. The crucial second goal arrived four minutes before the break. Riise retreated from the onrushing Walcott, who was allowed to drive into the penalty area. Stockdale parried his shot, but the ball broke to Podolski on the edge of the box, who fired past the despairing dive of Brede Hangeland, to double Arsenal’s lead. Worse might have followed but Podolski failed to find either a finish or a team-mate after a swift counter-attack from a corner, harmlessly rolling the ball across the face of goal on the stroke of half-time.
The home side began brightly after the break, with Taraabt testing Sczesny’s reflexes again with a firm low shot, but any hopes of a Fulham revival were quickly extinguished by Podolski, who finished expertly from the left corner of the box, shooting across Stockdale and into the far corner after a flowing Arsenal break. It was a tantalising glimpse of what Arsenal can do at their very best: with some delightful close control from Giroud beginning the move and sharp passing proceeding an immaculate finish. The verve and dynamism that used to typify a Wenger side had returned.
To their credit, Fulham – who have now lost their last five league games at Craven Cottage – continued to battle, typified by Parker, who was extremely impressive on his debut. The belated arrival of Bent produced their best moment. Berbatov’s terrific control and first-time shot surprised Szczesny and the on-loan Aston Villa forward pounced to prod home a consolation from close range. The Hammersmith End roared their approval, but the joy was fleeting. Fulham couldn’t produce a concerted spell of pressure and there remains much for Jol to work on.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Riether, Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Sidwell (Karagounis 75), Parker; Duff (Bent 59), Taarabt (Kacaniklic 62), Kasami; Berbatov. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Briggs, Boateng, Ruiz.
BOOKED: Parker, Kasami.
GOAL: Bent (77).
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Gibbs, Mertesacker, Sagna; Rosicky (Wilshere 70), Ramsey; Walcott, Podolski (Sanogo 81), Cazorla; Giroud (Monreal 72). Subs (not used): Fabianski, Frimpong, Gnabry, Zelalem.
BOOKED: Ramsey, Wilshere.
GOALS: Giroud (14), Podolski (41, 68).
REFEREE: Howard Webb (Yorkshire).