Arsenal made the short trip to Fulham yesterday knowing that three points were an absolute must. They had drawn 0-0 at home to Everton in midweek and slipped back to fourth in the league. With both Chelsea and Spurs facing tough games today it was vital for Arsenal to get the three points to move them back into third.
Arsene Wenger made two changes from the team which played against Everton. Tomas Rosicky came back into the attacking role in midfield to replace Jack Wilshere who was on the bench. Nacho Monreal came in at left back as he and Kieran Gibbs look like they will continue to share the duties in that position.
The team looked strong enough to get the win they needed away to a mid table team with nothing in particular to play for. Arsenal have struggled in this ground in the past though and so it was to be yesterday. Perhaps the most important action of the game came with only 12 minutes gone and it made Arsenal's task an awful lot easier.
Mikael Arteta over ran the ball a little in midfield and Steve Sidwell saw a chance to win it back. His challenge was a poor one though and he caught Arteta right on the ankle which left the referee with no choice other than to send him off. I was worried that Arteta might have picked up a very bad injury but he played on and hopefully he won't be feeling any after effects this week.
With only 10 men Fulham set themselves up to defend in depth and hit Arsenal on the break. It was a tactic which almost worked on a few occasions in the first half in particular with Wojceich Szczesny saving very well from Dimitar Berbstov on one occasion. Arsenal rarely threatened but did come close with a good effort from Olivier Giroud which hit the foot of the post.
As half time approached it looked like Arsenal were going nowhere until the intervention of their central defensive pairing. Theo Walcott floated a free kick to the far post and Laurent Koscielny rose unchallenged to head it back across goal for Per Mertesacker to head into an empty net. It was the perfect time for Arsenal to score and I hoped they would build on that lead in the second half.
Unfortunately the second half brought more of the same and Arsenal looked increasingly vulnerable as the game wore on. Lukas Podilski and Jack Wilshere came on for Rosicky and Walcott but their introductions made little difference. Fulham looked to close the ball down in the second half as they went in search of an equaliser and Arsenal found it hard to counter that.
Some of the players were ineffectual at best with Santi Cazorla and Walcott having very poor games in particular. Giroud didn't do much up front either but he got very little support. It was worrying that Arsenal found it so hard to break down a team reduced to 10 men for almost 80 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest blow to Arsenal's hopes of a top four finish came in virtually the last minute of the game. Giroud chased the ball and when he challenged he caught the top of it, but his foot went over it and caught the Fulham defender. Having issued a red card for a far more dangerous but similar challenge in the first half the referee was always going do the same to Giroud.
I think Giroud was a little unlucky as his standing foot slipped causing him to slide over the ball and into the Fulham player. If Sidwell hadn't been sent off earlier I think Giroud would have stayed on, but it was hard to argue with the referee's decision. It means Giroud will miss the next three games through suspension and that could be a real blow for Arsenal.
The options to play in the central striking role are limited to say the least and the lack of depth in that position could be cruelly exposed. Walcott showed he's not ready to play there when he got the chance earlier in the season and Podolski has not been deployed in that position at all so far. I don't think either of them can lead the line and I really don't think Gervinho is the solution to the problem either.
Arsenal became increasingly desperate in their defending towards the end of the game although Aaron Ramsey missed a good chance to put some gloss on the scoreline right at the end. They held on to win 1-0 and get the three points that were needed. Third place is theirs for the moment at least and the pressure is now on Chelsea and Spurs.
After the game the boss said the players were tired after the very tough game against Everton on Tuesday night. He pointed out that Everton's good run had come to an end at Sunderland as they clearly suffered from putting so much into that game too. Fulham did play on Wednesday night though and had 10 men for 80 minutes against Arsenal.
Arsenal have done well to take seven points from three games in eight days considering their performances in those games. Those seven points could be crucial to their hopes if securing Champions League football for next season. There are four games left this season first of all and the first of them is a really tough one next Sunday.
The chances are United will come to Arsenal next Sunday needing a win to clinch the league title. Arsenal will have to play an awful lot better if they are going to get something from that game and I think will need at least a draw. It's crucial for confidence and their top four chances that they aren't rolled over in that game.
The boss will have to plan for that game without Giroud and he has a week to do so. It won't be an easy task but avoiding a defeat could be good enough to help the team reach their goal of a top four finish.
The defence played well yesterday with both Koscielny and Mertesacker having good games. Szczesny looked good back in goal and hopefully he has his confidence back now.
What is worrying is the lack of chances created in the last three games. Arsenal had a patch earlier in the season where they couldn't create chances or score goals either and they're very close to that again. The unwillingness to shoot from distance yesterday was worrying and the ball was over played far too often in my opinion.
The three points were gained though and at the business end of the season that's all important. Performances like that don't usually bring victories but it did yesterday and that's something to be grateful for today.
That's it for today.
See you tomorrow.