By Richard Clarke
Exciting, attacking, sometimes frustrating, but always enthralling - it is great to have the old Arsenal back again.
For 83 minutes of this edge-of-the-seat encounter it seemed like Arsène Wenger's side would be falling to a deeply disappointing defeat. After just 52 seconds David Healy pounced on to Jens Lehmann's slip to put Fulham ahead and, from then on, Emirates Stadium both enjoyed and endured their side's display.
As ever they created abundant chances; as ever they spurned too many. When they did not, they found keeper Tony Warner in stunning form. Incredibly, the former Liverpool trainee had only been called into the Fulham side shortly before kick-off when Antti Niemi hurt his hand the warm-up.
With seven minutes left, the home side were chancing their arm to such an extent that Kolo Toure was trying to dribble into the area. His mazy run was halted illegally by Carlos Bocanegra and Van Persie rifled home the penalty.
Arsenal smelt victory and, with 15 seconds of normal time left, they got it. Cesc Fabregas lofted a ball to Alex Hleb in the area and he managed to hook home the winner.
At full time the crowd drew breathe and the entire Arsenal side had a team huddle in the centre circle before walking off to a standing ovation.
In the end, they deserved it.
Both sides had significant late losses to injury. On Friday, Eduardo's ankle had been described as minor and his fitness test the next day was assumed to be a formality. In fact it ruled him out so Hleb was used in the supporting role to Van Persie. Emmanuel Adebayor had already been ruled out with a groin problem.
Elsewhere Mathieu Flamini slotted into central midfield because of Gilberto's absence through post-Copa America fatigue. Bacary Sagna made his debut at right back with Emmanuel Eboue just in front.
Fulham lost Antti Niemi in the warm-up. The Finn hurt his hand was forced to pull out. Warner stepped up from the bench. Those with better memories would recall the former Cardiff keeper had thwarted Arsenal at Highbury only a couple of years ago. He would repeat that performance this afternoon.
Last season Arsenal had shown an incredible capacity to shoot themselves in the foot at Emirates Stadium. Although they lost only once, they trailed in 13 of the 27 games played at their new home.
It took less than a minute of the new campaign for them to fall into the same trap. Healy broke down the right-hand flank but Gael Clichy motored back to tap a seemingly innocuous ball to Lehmann. The German tried to swivel and return a pass to the French full back but slipped as he turned. The ball ricocheted off Healy, who had followed up admirably, and back into the Arsenal net.
Emirates Stadium, so resplendent and hopeful barely a minute earlier, was stunned into near silence.
The Arsenal response was exactly what you would have expected - urgent and energetic. Rosicky dragged a shot wide, Fabregas fired over and Hleb had half a shout for the penalty when Chris Baird brought him down near the byline.
In the 13th minute, Sagna reached the byline and cut a bobbling ball back into the area. Rosicky hooked his shot just beyond the post.
Four minutes later, Eboue crossed from the same place and Hleb's seemingly goalbound shot was hoiked over his own bar by the sliding Zat Knight. The Belarus international was involved in most of Arsenal's best work in the first half and, shortly afterwards, he danced into the area before being bundled over by Brian McBride. Again referee Phil Dowd waved play on
However Fulham created more than enough chances to suggest their goal had been no isolated effort. Smertin forced a low sprawling save from Lehmann then Simon Davies stung the keeper hands from distance.
When Warner tipped Rosicky's low, long-range drive past the post 10 minutes before half time it lifted Arsenal spirits once more.
Fulham had the own claims for a penalty when Steven Davis tumbled over in the area after Fabregas unknowingly clipped his heels. However the tide was going against the Fulham goal in the build up to half time. They created a couple of their clearest opportunities in the dying minutes
First, Van Persie crossed from the left to Hleb 12 yards out but the midfielder's shot cannoned back off the legs of Warner.
Then stand-in keeper then saved low from Van Persie and Rosicky just before the whistle.
Finally in injury time Warner rushed out to block Fabregas' toe-poke after Hleb had sent him clear. It had been a frustrating first half for Arsenal - a phrase that had been vastly overused last season.
It was bound to be more of the same in the second half and that is how it transpired. If anything it was more open and therefore more frustrating.
Rosicky raced clear down the left in the opening seconds only to stab his shot against Warner. Lehmann made a fine save from Davis with the Arsenal defence stretched but seconds later Van Persie scuttled onto Rosicky's through ball only to be thwarted once again by Warner.
Had the unmarked Carlos Bocanegra not miskicked at the near post after a Davies corner then Arsenal would have surely had too much to do. But while it stayed 1-0, there was always the feeling that if the home side could tear down the walls of the Fulham dam then the goals would flow.
Just past the hour Van Persie strode through only to be robbed by the sliding Baird. The ball fell to Rosicky 30 yards out who let fly with Warner out of position. Once again Knight hauled his huge frame in the way of the ball and it deflected behind for a corner.
In response to that chance, Wenger withdrew Eboue in favour of Walcott. The pacy youngster was perhaps the perfect player to test the tiring Fulham legs. Ten minutes later he threw on Nicklas Bendtner for Rosicky to do likewise to their sapping strength.
They were Wenger's only attacking substitutes. The manager had played all his cards, his team just had to go for it now.
William Gallas and Toure started to lend themselves to the Arsenal attack with regularity. With 16 minutes left, the latter cut in from the left to force a fine low save from Warner.
Eight minutes from time the Ivorian hurdled a couple of challenges before he was bodychecked by Bocanegra. Van Persie slammed in the penalty of the bar. Emirates sighed with relief then screamed for the winner.
Bendtner nearly provided it in the dying minutes when he slammed a low shot into the ribs of Warner.
In the end, that accolade went to Hleb.
- Eboue 63
- Flamini Yellow Card
- Hleb Goal!
- Rosicky 72
- Persie 96 Goal!
- Song 96
- Walcott 63
- Bendtner 72
- Warner Yellow Card
- Bocanegra Yellow Card
- Smertin 72 Yellow Card
- Bouazza 46
- Healy 63 Goal!
- Dempsey 46
- Diop 72 Yellow Card
- Kamara 63 Yellow Card