Arsenal faced a tricky trip to Fulham yesterday evening knowing that a win would put real pressure on the three teams above them in the Premier League. With that in mind Arsene Wenger chose what looked like the strongest team available to him from the start. It had been a tough festive programme for the players, but this was their last game for a week.
The Arsenal defence looked a little weak with Francis Coqueluin at left back and Johan Djourou at right back, but injuries had left Arsenal with no other options. I was a little surprised to see Robin van Persie start in attack, but I was also glad that he was in the team. Fulham are never an easy proposition at home, and Arsenal needed to be at their best to get a win.
The early exchanges were very promising for Arsenal, as they were well on top. It looked like only a matter of time before they would score in what was a very open game. Fulham threatened when they got forward at times, but Arsenal were superior in almost every department.
The goal Arsenal wanted came after 21 minutes when an Aaron Ramsey cross was deflected higher than he had intended it to go. The ball looped into the penalty area, and Laurent Koscielny was on hand to head home from six yards out. It was no more than Arsenal deserved at that stage, and they had plenty of chances to add to their lead before half time.
Before Arsenal had scored they were denied a certain penalty when the referee turned down their appeals after Philippe Senderos tripped Gervinho in the area. It didn't look like the referee's error would prove too costly to Arsenal during that first half, but later in the game it certainly did. There were other chances for Arsenal too, and David Stockdale performed heroics in the Fulham goal to make a double save.
Half time arrived with Arsenal 1-0 up, but it should have been at least two or three. I was worried that yet again they had failed to put away their opposition when the chances arose. My fears were well founded in the second half when Fulham took a stranglehold of the game.
I don't know if fatigue got to the Arsenal players, or maybe Fulham just played an awful lot better. Arsenal lost all control in midfield, and reverted to playing long balls to RVP which mostly came straight back at them. There was very little creative play from Arsenal, and it gave Fulham the incentive they needed.
RVP's cause wasn't helped by the referee's constant ignoring of the fouls on him, but that cannot excuse Arsenal's performance. The opportunity was there for them to make themselves look like actual title contenders, but they didn't take it. I've said before that this Arsenal team is not good enough to win the league, and that has not changed at all.
The best they can hope for is a top three or four finish, a run in the Champions League, and maybe chance of winning the FA Cup in my opinion. None of those looked evenly remotely possible earlier in the season, so the team has made real progress. Until RVP can have players of comparable quality around him it's very hard to see Arsenal progress to the next level though.
Both Theo Walcott and Gervinho showed why Arsenl fans can be so frustrated with them at times, as their performances against Fulham simply weren't good enough. Walcott departed halfway through the second half, but his replacement was hardly likely to strike fear in the Fulham defence. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn't even make the squad for this match, but surely his ability to take defenders on and beat them could have been of some benefit to the team.
On the other side Gervinho had the beating of Stephen Kelly, but what he did when he beat him was another matter. He has played well at times since he joined Arsenal, but I'm hoping he will get better as time goes by. He just doesn't seem to know what he is doing at times when he is on the ball.
Arsenal's lack of real options in midfield was cruelly exposed in the second half when both Ramsey and Mikael Arteta visibly faded. Abu Diaby and Jack Wilshere are both out injured, and there was nobody on the bench who could help them to regain control in midfield. I think Arsenal need to make a couple of signings in this transfer window, and hopefully Arsene Wenger will agree after yesterday.
Later in the season Arsenal might have to contend with two games a week between the Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup. The squad they have at the moment is equipped to do that in my opinion, and it needs reinforcements as soon as possible. If Wenger believes Chamberlain is up to playing for Arsenal he should give him a chance to show what he can do.
Despite Fulham's dominance Arsenal looked like they might just sneak a win, but that changed when Djourou received his second yellow card of the game. He was rightly booked for a challenge from behind, and when he put his arm on the shoulder of Bobby Zamora he risked a second card. Zamora may have made a big deal out of it, but if the referee believed it was a foul then Djourou had to be booked.
He was replaced at right back by Sebastien Squillaci, and his appearance always fills me with dread. I thought Koscielny should have been moved to right back with Squillaci or Ignasi Miquel coming on in the centre of defence. There may have been only 10 minutes to go when Djourou was sent off, but it seemed like an eternity for Arsenal.
Fulham equalised with five minutes left when Wojciech Szczesny flapped at a corner, and the curse of the old boys came back to haunt Arsenal. Senderos headed the ball back across the goalmouth, and Steve Sidwell was on hand to head it home. Both players had previously been sold by Arsenal, as they didn't quite make the grade at the club.
It was a matter of whether Arsenal could hang on for a point then, but in the second minute of added time that disappeared too. Squillaci headed a cross back across the Arsenal goalmouth, and Zamora was on hand to hit it home from a few yards out. I'm not sure who was meant to be marking him, but whoever it was failed miserably at their job.
Wenger was unhappy with the referee's performance after the game, but Arsenal lost the game because they lost the battle in midfield in the second half. The players don't play again until Leeds United visit them in the FA Cup next Monday, and some of them need that time to rest. Both Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh will probably be unavailable for that game, as they will be on African Cup of Nations duty with their countries.
It's easy to make excuses for Arsenal at the moment with all of their defensive injuries. When they lost the battle in midfield yesterday there was too much pressure on a makeshift defence, and Djourou's red card tipped them over the edge. The full backs who are all injured at the moment will probably not be back in time to face Manchester United on January 22, and that's worrying prospect.
Arsenal finished yesterday's game with Squillaci and Coquelin in the full back positions, and they are seventh and eighth choice for those roles at best. Even Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are not the first choice pairing in the centre of defence, and when the pressure was on it told.
The team needs to beat Leeds next week, and then go to Swansea a week later and put in a performance to show that they can recover from yesterday. It won't be an easy task against a team that play very well as a unit, and are capable of matching any team at home.
Yesterday's result was dreadfully disappointing for Arsenal, but it's their ability to recover from it that will be the true mark of this team.
That's it for today.
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