By Richard Clarke
Arsenal moved within a point of third place in the Premiership following a 3-1 win over Fulham at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
However that does not tell the tale of tense, tight London derby in which the visitors played a full part. Julio Baptista nodded the home side in front after four minutes and, for the remainder of the half, they hit cruise control. Arsenal attacked in waves and Fulham had to thank goalkeeper Antti Niemi for a couple of superb saves.
But, yet again, the home side would pay for not converting their chances. After the break Fulham were a different side and few could begrudge them Simon Davies' equaliser 12 minutes from time - albeit there was a sense of controversy when it went in.
Indeed Lawrie Sanchez's side might have taken the lead in the nerve-jangling moments which followed. However, in the final six minutes, Emmanuel Adebayor stormed through to score and then Gilberto made the points safe from the penalty spot.
The record books will suggest this was a regulation home win for Wenger's side. In truth it was anything but.
Before kick-off the manager made just two changes from the side that had taken a point from White Hart Lane last weekend. Tomas Rosicky and Freddie Ljungberg had not recovered from the hamstring injuries they picked up in that game. Cesc Fabregas and Baptista were the replacements.
Emirates Stadium was drenched in sunlight this afternoon and it provided a wonderful backdrop for Arsenal Football Club to say farewell to two of its favourite sons. Alan Ball and Arthur Milton had both passed away in the previous few days. They were remembered with a reverential yet rousing minute of applause.
Results on Saturday had already assured Arsenal of fourth place in the Premiership and its accompanying Champions League place for next term. However Wenger still had his sights on third.
Within less than four minutes, Arsenal looked like they were ready to close the gap. Adebayor danced to the byline and clipped the ball high to the far post. Baptista rose high above Liam Rosenior and planted his header into the far corner of the net.
It was the last thing Fulham needed in their current predicament. However it was just the boost Arsenal needed given their propensity to concede first at Emirates. The home side would go on to create - and then spurn - a host of chances before the break.
On the quarter-hour, Toure had cracked an effort into the chest of the sprawling Niemi. Then a sweeping move saw Clichy and Fabregas set up Baptista at the far post. He hooked his effort wide when well-placed. The Brazilian was starting to have one of those games where every chance fell his way. Seconds later, he hammered a shot wide from just outside the area.
Fulham had to turn the tide - for the sake of their game and their Premiership future. Tomasz Radzinksi's effort was blocked and fell to Rosenior, who hacked over.
However Arsenal were playing with the shackles off. They had achieved what Wenger had described as their "minimum achievement" this season - a Champions League spot. Unfortunately they were bystanders in the shake-up for trophies however, on the evidence of today, they were going to finish the season with a flourish.
On the half hour Hleb's cutback was met with a crisp shot from Fabregas. Niemi's outstretched left-hand did enough to block the shot. He then recovered to smother the ball before it trickled over the line. A couple of minutes later the Finn flung himself to his right to turn aside Adebayor's header. Baptista completed a flurry of chances when he burst into the area and flicked wide.
Arsenal ended the half in control but, once again, had only got the one goal when they had deserved many more.
The home side might have closed the gap between their dominance and their lead within two minutes of the restart. Hleb bamboozled the Fulham defence on the edge of their area before nudging the ball into the path of Adebayor. The Togolese striker screwed his ball high over the bar when well-placed however the attentions of Zat Knight might have caught his eye at the last second.
The dangers of such profligacy were demonstrated shortly afterwards when Claus Jensen's angled drive caused Jens Lehmann to fling himself to his right. Fortunately for Arsenal the ball whistled a couple of feet wide.
Fulham would build on the chance. They did not exactly create opportunities but, over the next 10 minutes, they exerted pressure on the Arsenal goal and caused the type of tension that was both common at Emirates and unnecessary given the home side's dominance.
Sanchez brought on Heidar Helguson and Clint Dempsey just before the hour in order to inject some more life into the Fulham attack. If anything the move took the edge off the visitors and, in the following 15 minutes, Arsenal managed to regain some of their composure.
However just when it seemed the home side had survived the visitors' sternest tests Fulham grabbed an equaliser. Helguson challenged Lehmann for a long, left-wing cross on the edge of the area and the ball fell to Davies. He controlled it with one touch and with his second he steered a lofted volley from the right-hand channel into the far corner of the net. From an Arsenal perspective there was a whiff of controversy about the goal. They had only Kolo Toure on the goalline when Davies let fly therefore it seemed the final Fulham attacker was offside. However the assistant referee did not raise his flag.
Arsenal had little time to ponder the goal. In the minutes that followed an unmarked Dempsey headed over and Lehmann saved smartly from Michael Brown at the near post.
Fulham were pushing for a winner and perhaps that was their undoing. With six minutes left, Fabregas sent Adebayor sprinting clear and he stroked home his 12th goal of the season.
Three minutes later Moritz Volz scythed down Hleb in the area and Gilberto calmly converted from the spot.
The job was completed and the points secured but it had been another white-knuckle ride on the Arsenal rollercoaster.
- Eboue Yellow Card
- Silva Goal! Yellow Card
- Baptista 71 Goal!
- Adebayor Goal!
- Denilson 71
- Bocanegra Yellow Card
- Rosenior 68
- Jensen 59
- Davies Goal!
- Brown Yellow Card
- McBride 59
- Volz 68 Yellow Card
- Dempsey 59
- Helguson 59 Yellow Card