A first-half goal by Per Mertesacker gave a Arsenal a three-point reward for a so-so performance against Fulham and enhanced their chances of reaching next season's Champions League, but the climax to their season has been complicated by a straight red card that was shown to Olivier Giroud in the last minute.
Arsenal will be deprived of their French striker for the next three matches but can at least contemplate that blow from a position of strength, as this result lifted them to third in the Premier League, five points clear of fifth-place Tottenham, who have two matches in hand.
The scruffiness of the decisive goal here was in keeping with a far from swanky performance by Arsenal but points are the most precious commodity for Arsène Wenger right now and, since triggering prophesies of doom by losing the north London derby on 3 March, his team have now collected 19 from 21 available.
This did not look like being such a complicated afternoon for the visitors, as, without sparkling, they were quick to gain the upper hand in terms of possession here and the likelihood of them turning that into goals increased in the 12th minute when Steve Sidwell, who was just returning from suspension following a red card against Queen's Park Rangers, was sent off for a late tackle on Mikel Arteta.
The decision by Andre Marriner was correct even if it was not a particularly sinister challenge, rather one that reflected the fact that Arsenal were generally quicker to the ball than their opponents and more assured in their movements. Yet Arsenal struggled to profit from their numerical advantage and Fulham restricted them to few openings. It was, in fact, the home side who created the first clear chance of the game, aided by Olivier Giroud giving the ball away on the edge of the home box in the 21st minute. Urby Emanuelson collected the ball and galloped forward before slipping a pass through to Dimitar Berbatov, whose shot from 16 yards was turned away by Wojciech Szczesny. Emmanuel went close himself in the 40th minute, dispossessing Nacho Monreal before letting fly from the edge of the area. Szczesny again pushed the shot away for a corner.
Those were rare breaks by the hosts as Arsenal dominated most of the first half, albeit in mostly sterile fashion. The visitors' passing was not inventive enough to prise a diligent Fulham apart, making Wenger's team a lot like skint philanthropists – full of worthy intentions but lacking the ability to implement them. Giroud, like Theo Walcott, was enduring another off-day but did play a prominent role in Arsenal's most cutting move of the first half, hitting a low shot against the post from 16 yards after nimble work down the left with Monreal and Santi Cazorla.
Mostly, though, Arsenal looked like they needed something different, such as the jagged running of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Lukas Podolski. Before the need for substitutions became urgent, however, Arsenal took the lead through a straightforward set-piece. Walcott curled a free-kick from deep to the back post, Laurent Koscielny nodded it back across the face of goal and Mertesacker headed into the net from a yard.
If Arsenal thought that would make the second half easier, they were disappointed. Fulham doggedly kept them at bay and, indeed, came close to scoring on their infrequent ventures upfield, Bryan Ruiz curling a free-kick over the bar before a misdirected cross from Stanislav Manolev in the 70th minute had Szczesny scrambling backwards to tip it over the bar.
Wenger withdrew the ineffective Walcott and Tomas Rosicky moments later, introducing Podolski and Jack Wilshere, but Arsenal could not find inspiration and Fulham continued to prove pesky. Craven Cottage was momentarily catapulted into joy in the 76th minute when Manolev slotted the ball into the net from close range after Szczesny parried another Ruiz free-kick but the sight of a rightly raised offside flag curtailed those celebrations. The decision to dismiss Giroud in the 90th minute was more debatable – the striker did not make contact with Manolev as he won the ball and many referees might have considered the challenge robust but fair, rather than dangerous. Arsenal held on for the victory. Just.
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