Football is a very cruel game. Fulham, no strangers to late heartbreak, were denied a precious – and unlikely – win at Arsenal this afternoon when Eddie Nketiah poked home an equaliser in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Whether the dropped points after Josh Maja had calmly converted a second half spot-kick will matter in the final analysis remains to be seen – a second great escape would still have been heroic had the Whites held on here – but the agony remains immense. There was a case that Rob Holding, clearly offside in front of Alphonse Areola, was interfering with play but, perhaps – having already seen two Arsenal goals chalked off by the video assistant referee – Fulham were pushing their luck.

The margins are so fine now as to demand that Fulham have a flawless run in to the end of the season, whilst the two teams they are most likely to catch will have to implode. All those scenarios seem pretty fanciful, but Scott Parker would have been greatly encouraged by the character and fortitude displayed during this performance. The Fulham boss had made five changes after the stoppage-time defeat at home to out-of-form Wolves nine days ago and, after weathering a rather ropey start, his side coped well with Arsenal’s attacking threat for much of the contest.

Arsenal, also much-changed after their early burst blew away Slavia Prague in the Europa League in midweek, started with plenty of adventure. The recalled Gabriel Martinelli almost delivered the perfect start when the winger reached a lovely weighted pass from Alexandre Lacazette and lifted the ball over Areola and just wide. The French goalkeeper probably predicted he would have a busy afternoon and he spread himself instinctively to deny the Gabonese forward after Smith-Rowe had skipped to the byline far too easily.

Fulham’s moments of promise in and around the opposition area were few and far between in a first half that was mostly about containment. Maja had their best chance and was unlucky not to score, seeing an instinctive snapshot deflect off Holding and trickle agonisingly wide after Bobby Decordova-Reid’s ambitious drive from distance had ricocheted off Dani Ceballos. There were arguably fortunate to still be level at the break when Ceballos was denied a first Premier League goal as his fine header was ruled off when Bukayo Saka was adjudged fractionally offside. Joachim Andersen breathed a sigh of relief when a potential own goal against him was similarly chalked off just before half-time, although the offside against Smith-Rowe was much more clear cut.

The visitors came out on the front foot after the interval, but almost immediately paid the penalty when a promising attack broke down and the Gunners poured forward. Lacazette drove wide from a very presentable position and Saka, easily Arsenal’s most likely source of breaking the deadlock, then dangerously darted away from Antonee Robinson and almost surprised Areola at his near post – with his cross-cum-shot thudding off the woodwork. It looked as if Fulham would struggle to hold on to a point, but suddenly things got far better at the other end.

It came courtesy of Mario Lemina’s sense of adventure. The on-loan Southampton midfielder, who secured Fulham’s famous win at Anfield earlier this season with a fine strike, drove forward with purpose and almost found the rampaging right back Ola Aina in the Arsenal box. The ball bounced back towards Lemina, who got there just ahead of Gabriel, whose ill-timed challenge resulted in a penalty, awarded first by the referee’s assistant and confirmed by Stuart Attwell after a check at Stockley Park. Maja stepped up and sent the spot-kick high into the roof of the net, handing Fulham a critical advantage.

They so nearly held onto it. Arsenal’s striking resources, already diminished by the absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who contracted malaria during the recent international break, were depleted further when Lacazette limped off with what looked like an injured hamstring. A combination of Areola and Tosin Adarabioyo kept out a header from Nicolas Pepe at the far post when the winger looked certain to equalise and the goalkeeper then made excellent stops from Martinelli and Nketiah. Harrison Reed produced a brilliant block in the fifth minute of stoppage time as Arsenal closed in again, but Fulham couldn’t quite see it through to the end.

Nketiah’s poacher’s instinct robbed the Whites of their first top flight London derby win in 22 attempts, although it was something of a comedy of errors. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, presumably introduced to make Fulham harder to play through as time ticked away, somehow failed to keep the ball in the far side and Decordova-Reid needlessly conceded a corner when he failed to receive a shout that nobody in red was behind him at the far post. Goalkeeper Mat Ryan flicked Saka’s delivery across the face of goal and Smith-Rowe smashed it through a crowd of legs. Areola pushed it out, but only as far as Nketiah who gleefully accepted the gift.

Parker spoke in the week of Fulham needed to bounce back from a number of body blows and retain their belief, but this one gut punch it will prove very difficult to recover from.

ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Bellerin (Pepe 68), Xhaka, Gabriel, Holding; Elneny (Partey 68), Ceballos; Saka, Martinelli, Smith-Rowe; Lacazette (Nketiah 70). Subs (not used): Leno, Cedric, Chambers, Mari, Willian, Nelson.

GOAL: Nketiah (90+7).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Aina, Robinson, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Lemina, Anguissa; Cavaleiro (Bryan 84), Decordova-Reid, Lookman (Reed 69); Maja (Loftus-Cheek 77). Subs (not used): Fabri, Hector, Odoi, Ream, Onomah, Mitrovic.

BOOKED: Andersen, Decordova-Reid, Areola.

GOAL: Maja (pen 59).

REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).

VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).