By Richard Clarke
Arsenal slipped to their first defeat of the season in deeply disappointing fashion at Fulham on Saturday.
The all-important goal came midway through the first half when Brede Hangeland arrived unmarked to prod home Jimmy Bullard’s corner from close range.
Arsène Wenger’s side nearly replied immediately when Emmanuel Adebayor thumped a header against the post but, in truth, they had been well off the pace in the first period.
They were better after the break and pegged back Fulham into their own half for most of the final half-hour. However they failed to really test Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer.
Time will tell if this was a blip due to a catalogue of injuries or a sign of weakness. Whatever the cause, Arsenal only lost three games last term – two of which were against Manchester United and Chelsea – but they did not win the title.
Even though it was only the second game of the season, Arsenal can afford precious few results like this before next May.
Fulham, of course, deserve credit. They worked hard, took the chance that came their way and did not make a mistake at back.
Unfortunately, It was enough to beat Arsenal on the day.
Still without five first-teamers, Wenger made two changes from the side that won the opening-day fixture against West Brom last Saturday.
Kolo Toure had been bench-bound last Saturday due a hip problem but he returned alongside William Gallas this afternoon. Another familiar partnership was reunited up front as Robin van Persie came back alongside Adebayor.
Last Saturday had been difficult for both these sides. Arsenal had hardly been dominant in their 1-0 win over West Brom while Fulham had gone down 2-1 at another newly-promoted side, Hull.
Both managers needed a morale-boosting performance. However, in the first half, only Roy Hodgson would get it.
In the fifth minute Zoltan Gera sent Bobby Zamora through on the left but the former West Ham striker overhit his cross woefully.
Arsenal were taking time to settle. Theo Walcott whipped a dangerous cross into the heart of the area and Adebayor swept a speculative shot wide.
On the quarter-hour, Danny Murphy volleyed over after Arsenal failed to clear their lines but neither side was playing at the top of their game.
That said, the visitors should have gone ahead in the 19th minute. Walcott crossed to the far post, Nasri’s attempted shot turned into a trickling cut-back for Van Persie, who lashed an effort wide when he should have scored.
Arsenal seemed to be playing the cagey first-half football that had served them so well at Twente. Surely it was only a matter of time before their quality would tell.
However that perspective would be turned on its head in the 21st minute.
Zamora turned Toure on the left of the area but the Ivorian centre back recovered to put the ball out for a corner. Jimmy Bullard swung it over and the unmarked Hangeland arrived to toe-poke a volley in to the net from close range.
Arsenal were nearly level within two minutes. Adebayor met Sagna’s deep cross with a thumping header that clipped the outside of the post.
An energised confident Fulham continued to give Wenger’s men the occasional scare before half time but no more. Arsenal were little better. Their best sight of goal came 10 minutes before the break when Van Persie blazed an effort way over the bar.
Wenger had much to do at the break.
Adebayor’s early volley was blocked at close range but did suggest Arsenal were up for the battle in the second half.
However before we had reached the hour, the visitors had started to commit players forward. As a result of that, Seol Ki-Hyeon found space on the left and cross for Zamora to flick a shot over the bar at the near post.
Six minutes later the same pair set up Simon Davies, who flicked a woeful effort wide.
By this time, Wenger had replaced Walcott with Bendtner. It was an attacking move and it helped Arsenal heap even more pressure on the home side.
For the first time in the game, the visitors had began to keep the ball in the Fulham half of the pitch.
In the 65th minute, Murphy brought down Eboue and Van Persie’s free-kick clipped the wall then flew over the bar. After that the Dutchman dragged a shot wide from long range but they failed to build on the opportunity.
They did not really threaten again until the final 10 minutes when Nasri and Clichy both had efforts blocked.
The final stages were frantic. Arsenal threw bodies into the box and caution to the wind. Fulham defended with their lives and broke with determination and speed.
Adebayor had a header, substitute Alex Song blazed an effort wide. That was it.
Arsenal were beaten.
- Toure 77
- Walcott 65
- Bendtner 65
- Song 77
- Kallio 74
- Hangeland Goal!
- Murphy 81 Yellow Card
- Seol 77
- Teymourian 81 Yellow Card
- Dempsey 77
- Baird 74