By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 2 - 1 FULHAM, 4TH DECEMBER 2010
Arsenal went to the top of the Premier League after a stuttering performance was lit up by two moments of class from Samir Nasri. Nasri scored both goals at a freezing Emirates Stadium to send Arsenal fans home in high spirits and leaving Fulham fans singing gallows humour renditions on the superiority of West London as a place to live.
But this was no routine victory. Arsenal's form at home this season has been lacklustre and their display was scarcely worth the victory. They had dominated the opening exchanges, with Andrey Arshavin as well as Nasri looking lively. Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer had already made a stunning save to deny an Arshavin volley from close range, but on 16 minutes the Russian - who had received some infantile abuse from a minority of the Fulham support, simply for having the temerity to support his country's bid to host the 2018 World Cup - drifted infield past two players on the left to play Nasri clear. As is often the case at The Emirates, the crowd implored the Frenchman to shoot. But Nasri showed impressive presence of mind to jink inside the desperate challenges of Brede Hangelaand & Aaron Hughes before firing past Schwarzer.
But rather than use the goal as a launchpad, it seemed to stultify the Gunners. Maybe they thought that the contest was over. Whatever the reason, their passing lacked purpose and their fluidity of movement was sporadic at best. Added to this Mark Hughes tinkered Fulham's formation and mercifully removed left back Matthew Briggs - who had been getting a roasting from Nasri - for the more experienced Chris Baird (why he didn't start initially is a mystery to me).
Shorn of both Bobby Zamora & Moussa Dembele, and with Andrew Johnson still short of match fitness, Fulham had little to trouble Arsenal. But the home side seemed to be making life difficult for themselves with an overreliance on the offside trap that bordered on folly. On 30 minutes the folly was exposed. After failing to clear a long ball, Diomansy Kamara beat Arsenal's flimsy attempts to play offside and finished with ease inside the penalty area.
The scores were level and the Arsenal crowd howled in frustration. They almost became incandescent as Kamara was played clear again after Arsenal's defensive line failed to push up accordingly. This time Lukasz Fabianski was equal to Kamara and made a fine save to keep the scores level at half-time.
While Arsenal played at a faster tempo in the second-half, the quality of passing that they are known for deserted them. Typified by a woeful performance from Tomas Rosicky, Arsenal often tried to force passes that weren't on, causing them to concede possession regularly. This even spread to the likes of Arshavin & Nasri, who buzzed around with intent but with a decreasing level of quality. Fulham were looking increasingly solid, with Dickson Etuhu particularly impressive in midfield.
After an hour, Robin Van Persie was summoned from the bench to try and rescue the game. The change made sense. Arsenal's frontman Marouane Chamakh had looked out of sorts, and Van Persie would have been expected to provide some cutting edge in the final third. Well, for 13 minutes, Van Persie's impact was negligible. I think he touched the ball all of twice (and that's an optimistic estimate). But on 76 minutes his impact was crucial. After picking the ball up from Arshavin, he got the ball on his favoured left foot, faked to shoot and then played the onrushing Nasri into the penalty area with a delightfully weighted pass. But Nasri still had plenty of work to do. After riding clear of the covering challenge, he then rounded Schwarzer. It looked as if he had taken the ball too far away from goal, but curved his body around the ball and lifted it over a desperate attempt from the covering defender. Not only was this accomplished in a very tight pocket of space, but as loud as the fans shouted at him to shoot early on his first goal, they roared for him to do so with his second. It showed incredible composure to make sure of the chance before rushing it, especially in the knowledge that time was fast running out and a better chance may not come along.
It didn't. Arsenal were left to see out a nerve-shredding last 18 minutes, with Johan Djourou & Bacary Sagna particularly impressive under a barrage of high balls played into the penalty box from Fulham. Fabianski was called into action with two minutes left, saving a long range effort from Zoltan Gera that flew through a crowd of players. It's said that a good keeper wins you points throughout a season, and while the Pole has come in for plenty of criticism, his saves won Arsenal at least two points today.
But the star was Nasri. As my friend Chris & I watched the game, we talked about how Nasri has added a cutting edge to his game in the past year. And with captain Cesc Fabregas currently on the injured list, the improvement has been timely. Nasri produced the kind of display usually the preserve of Fabregas. While others failed to take responsibility to secure the 3 points, it was Nasri who put his hand up. In arctic conditions, he was the bright light amongst frozen statues and ensured that for the first time in a month, Arsenal fans went home happy after a league game. He has become something of a hero at the club and the fans have made up their own song in tribute to him. To the tune of KC & The Sunshine Band's, Baby Give It Up, it rang out not only in the stadium, but it was the gratifying soundtrack of my journey home this evening.
Fabianski - 7, Sagna - 7, Squllaci - 6, Koscielny - 6 (Djourou - 7), Clichy - 7, Wilshere - 7 (Walcott - 5), Song - 6, Rosicky - 4 (Van Persie - 6), Nasri - 8, Arshavin - 6, Chamakh - 6
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