By Richard Clarke
Rookie keeper Vito Mannone pulled off a string of stunning saves as Arsenal snatched a 1-0 win at Fulham on Saturday evening.
The only goal came from Robin van Persie seven minutes after half-time. It was a wonderful strike fashioned by Cesc Fabregas and finished stylishly by the Dutchman.
That would probably be the abiding memory of any average game but it won't be today. Instead the image of Mannone's blocks will linger longest.
The 21-year-old made acrobatic stops from Andrew Johnson headers in each half. He also thwarted the former Palace frontman with a sprawling effort in front of his near post and tipped Zoltan Gera's shot wide. However surely Mannone's best moment was the reflex save from Bobby Zamora's thunderous header nine minutes from time.
Remember the former Atalanta player is Arsenal's third-choice keeper and this was only his ninth game in any form of first-team football.
Fulham will feel hard done at this result. But, for once, Arsène Wenger's side were the more clinical.
With Chelsea surprisingly losing at Wigan, Arsenal caught up a little ground today - thanks mainly to Mannone.
Wenger made two changes as his side got back to Premier League action after their midweek Carling Cup sojourn.
Nicklas Bendtner and a fit-again Andrey Arshavin replaced Emmanuel Eboue and Eduardo. Theo Walcott has recovered from his back problem but was not risked this afternoon.
The early stages saw more injuries than chances. Damian Duff had to go off after eight minutes so Gera came on. Shortly afterwards, Mannone confidently claimed a right-wing cross but clattered William Gallas in the process. The Frenchman needed treatment but carried on.
Although Arsenal had started nicely, Fulham soon barged their way into the game. Hodgson's side attacked well down the flanks and Dempsey examined Mannone early on with a low shot.
In the 14th minute, the Italian would be tested much more sternly.
Gera curled in a cross from the right and Johnson got across his marker to steer an excellent header towards the far post. Mannone threw himself to his right and thrust out a hand to block. It was an excellent save but the ball fell to Dempsey. He tried to turn the ball back towards goal but his effort deflected off Gallas and hit Mannone in the face before bouncing wide. The Italian keeper had earned his luck for the quality of the initial stop.
Fabregas fired over the bar almost immediately and, in the 21st minute, the Spaniard set up Arshavin, who lofted a wasteful effort over the bar. Replays proved that, apart from the attentions of Aaron Hughes, the Russian had missed because the ball had taken a nasty leap at the crucial moment.
Arsenal's response did not last. Fulham squeezed their opponents once again and, in the 36th minute, again it was only Mannone who stopped them taking the lead. Johnson's flick sent Gera clear in the right-hand channel. The Hungarian speared a low shot towards the far post but the Italian fingertipped the ball past the post.
Wenger lead his side back to the dressing room with much talking to do.
Zamora went close with a couple of efforts - a long-range drive and a blocked curling shot - in the opening stages of the second half.
But Arsenal seemed a little brighter themselves - and in the 52nd minute they proved it. Song intercepted a pass from Paul Konchesky and Bendtner fed Fabregas in midfield. He clipped a ball forward to Van Persie who controlled the ball in mid-stride with his left foot and fired into the far corner of the net with his right. A superb technical goal.
Fulham could feel a little hard done by and Bendtner nearly rubbed salt into the wound a minute later but his low angled shot was wonderfully turned away by Mark Schwarzer.
However Fulham were still a threat and, in the 55th minute, Mannone was again Arsenal's savour. Johnson met Zamora's cross with a firm header towards the far post. The keeper dived full length to tip the ball away and Dempsey could only fire the rebound wastefully across goal.
Although, Arsenal were looking quite comfortable in patches they sometimes relied on desperate defending at the back. Sagna diverted Dempsey's shot on the post then Gallas, who was having a commanding game, slid in to smother Zamora's shot.
Thirteen minutes from time, Johnson fired low through a forest of players and Mannone pulled off sprawling save.
However the best was yet to come four minutes later. Fulham won a free-kick on the right, Konchesky hoisted it into the area and Zamora climbed highest to send in a towering header. It seemed a certain goal but Mannone pushed the ball aside. A brilliant block.
Fulham were now attacking with little restraint and Arsenal nearly took advantage. Substitute Eboue danced round the last defender only to see his shot blocedk then, on full time, Bendtner blazed over when well-placed.
At the final whistle, the Arsenal players all hugged Mannone. They knew this was his day.
The three points he helped preserve could prove vital at the end of the season.
- Fabregas (C)
- Arshavin 68
- van Persie 83 Goal! Yellow Card
- Eboue 83
- Rosicky 68
- Pantsil Yellow Card
- Duff 9
- Murphy (C) Yellow Card
- Etuhu 83
- Zamora Yellow Card
- Greening 83
- Gera 9