By Richard Clarke
Samir Nasri struck two goals of rare quality as Arsenal went top of the Premier League table with a 2-1 win over Fulham on Saturday.
The Frenchman has been simply brilliant in recent weeks but this afternoon he excelled himself.
Fourteen minutes from the start, he left two defenders on their backsides before thumping home from close range.
Fifteen minutes from the end, he bustled into the area, rounded one defender and then the keeper before hooking the ball home.
To be honest, much of the intervening time was filled with frustration. Diomansy Kamara equalised after Laurent Koscielny had been left dazed from an accidental collision with team-mate Sebastien Squillaci.
Arsenal chased the game with urgency and intelligence. But Fulham had drawn around 60 per cent of their games this season and you could see why.
Their tactics were to smother Arsenal’s invention and then snatch what they could via a breakaway or set-piece. Wenger’s men spent the afternoon prising them open.
After successive home defeats to Newcastle and Tottenham, the pressure was on. But they responded manfully.
Everton’s late equaliser at Chelsea and the postponement of Manchester United’s game allowed Arsenal to go top.
Now they simply have to stay there.
Wenger made nine changes from the midweek win over Wigan in the Carling Cup. Only Jack Wilshere and Koscielny kept their places.
However compared to Villa last weekend, the side was unchanged. Once again Tomas Rosicky was captain.
That Wigan win had lifted a little of the pressure on Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. But home form was still an issue for Wenger’s men in the title race. A defeat this afternoon would be their third straight in the Premier League – something that had not happened for 33 years.
But then Fulham hardly had history on their side. They had NEVER won a League game at Arsenal – and they had been trying since before the First World War.
In the opening stages, it seemed that run would carry on.
After seven minutes, Wilshere’s right-wing free-kick headed high towards Andrey Arshavin at the far post. The Russian waited for the ball to drop and let fly from point-blank range. Mark Schwarzer spread himself widely to block.
The Russian then prodded Nasri through the centre but he poked the ball wide of the upright.
The Frenchman would not have to wait long for his goal. In the 14th minute, Arshavin cut in from the left and, again, released Nasri on the right of the area.
He still had plenty to do – but he went and did it. Nasri weaved inside one defender, and then another before thumping home his 10th goal of the season. The Frenchman ran to the corner flag as the two bamboozled Fulham players picked themselves off the floor.
Arsenal might have doubled their lead soon afterwards but Wilshere elected to tee-up Marouane Chamakh instead of going for goal. Midway through the half, Arshavin thieved the ball, shrugged off a lame challenge and forced a scrambling save from distance.
The home side were looking to put the game to bed and Nasri was acting as the nightcap.
He muscled past Matthew Briggs on the right and his cutback was turned goalwards by Dickson Etuhu. Schwarzer saved on the line as Arshavin threatened.
Seconds later, Rosicky crossed from the right and Alex Song steered a shot just wide.
It was more than more than one-way traffic. It was a motorway of oncoming chances.
A lot of those had been coming down the Arsenal right and shortly afterwards Hughes took off left back Briggs. He did not appear to be injured.
However while home form is a new problem. Profligacy is an old one.
Despite that, the goal that Arsenal conceded on the half-hour would be laced with misfortune. Fulham staged a rare foray up front and, in clearing a ball, Squillaci headed his team-mate Koscielny clean in the face. The latter Frenchman was still groggy when Clint Dempsey clipped a ball into the space he should have been occupying. Kamara took it in his stride and sidefooted home.
As the goal went in, Koscielny fell to the floor. He was stretchered off and Djourou came on.
Suddenly those home comforts had gone. The nerves returned and Fulham tried to winkle Arsenal open at the back.
In injury time they did. Etuhu sent Kamara clean through but Fabianski stood up to make a crucial save.
That chance came seconds after Bacary Sagna had sent over a cross from the right and Chamakh’s bullet header found the hands of Schwarzer when he should have found the net.
Arsenal went into the break in a position of unnecessary parity.
Song set up Rosicky to fire wide in the opening minutes of the second half. Once again it was all Arsenal in the early stages.
Arshavin tried a ‘Nasri’ by weaving inside two defenders and letting fly. However his shot hit the feet of Schwarzer.
The traffic continued but the chances dried up. That prompted Wenger to bring on Robin van Persie for Rosicky in the 63rd minute.
It was turning out to be a frustrating afternoon. The Arsenal team were chasing every ball and closing down every opponent but Fulham were disciplined, organised and ate up clock where they could.
Midway through the half, Song muscled off John Pantsil and, from an angle, fired over the bar.
However, Fulham offered some danger. Fabianski missed his punch at a corner and Zoltan Gera’s header was booted off the line by Van Persie. Shortly after that Squillaci headed a probing cross from Simon Davies away from goal. Gera’s overhead kick then drifted wide.
With 17 minutes left, Fulham swapped Kamara for Andy Johnson while Theo Walcott came on for Wilshere.
The end-game was upon us – but before it had really begun Nasri put the visitors in check-mate.
Van Persie shaped to shoot on the edge of the area but instead fed the Frenchman. He dodged past one defender and danced past the keeper. His angle was now acute but he recovered sufficiently to hook his shot past Aaron Hughes on the line.
Fulham were not spent. Etuhu scrambled a shot inches wide almost immediately but Chamakh could have killed it but when, after receiving Clichy’s cross, he fired over.
Fabianski made a crucial late save from Gera and Fulham pushed for the equaliser.
But Arsenal deserved this.
They will have to show much more of that spirit to be there in May.
However, title triumphs are built on ground-out victories like the one at Emirates Stadium this afternoon.
- Koscielny 33
- Nasri Goal! Goal!
- Rosicky 63
- Wilshere 73
- Djourou 33
- Walcott 73
- van Persie 63
- Briggs 28
- Murphy 88
- Kamara 73 Goal!
- Baird 28
- Johnson 73
- Johnson 88