By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Thomas Vermaelen scored at both ends as Arsenal drew 1-1 with Fulham at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The Belgian defender nodded home an equaliser past Mark Schwarzer eight minutes from time to give Arsène Wenger’s side a point they deserved.
The strike atoned for a 65th minute own goal that had handed Fulham a surprise lead.
The result ended a run of five successive Premier League wins for Wenger’s men but due credit must be given to Martin Jol’s side, who were organised and diligent throughout.
Yes, they were happy to play for a point in the final minutes but they were more ambitious than that early on.
This was two points dropped by Arsenal and, in that sense, certainly a blow. However, it might well have been worse and, by recovering to gain a point, Wenger’s side maintained some of their upward momentum.
They must just dust themselves down and move on.
Arsenal are pretty much two-games-per-week until Christmas now so it was unsurprising that the manager rotated a little before kick-off.
It was the first time in six years that Wenger had not included a Frenchman in his starting line-up.
Fulham came into the game just two places above the dropzone but, if recent seasons were any indication, they were much better than that.
The visitors would spend the first half demonstrating the point. Arsenal’s attitude and application were right but they struggled to dominate as they had at Norwich a week earlier.
In the opening minutes, Robin van Persie sent Arshavin clear, who finished with aplomb. However, replays proved he was rightly flagged for offside. Fulham saw Dempsey’s shot blocked and, midway through the half, Zamora muscled past his marker before cracking an effort over the bar.
Although Van Persie’s dribble set up the onrushing Ramsey to fire over, Arsenal were not fluent.
The first quarter of the game did not appear to be a match-up of the Premier League’s red-hot side and lukewarm strugglers.
Fulham were successfully stifling their hosts in a midfield morass. Arsenal had to break the shackles.
Walcott seemed the most likely escapologist. He raced down the right and fired low at Schwarzer. It heralded a flurry of Arsenal pressure but no chances of note.
In fact, Fulham came closer when Moussa Dembele’s deflected effort drifted just wide.
Five minutes from half-time Szczesny had to save full-length from the Belgian at the near post and, from the corner, Brede Hangeland headed over.
By now the visitors had expanded their horizons. The game was not about stopping Arsenal, it was about creating chances themselves.
As the whistle blew, Mertesacker nodded wide from Arteta’s free-kick. However, the home side needed to offer much, much more in the second half.
In fairness, Arsenal went on the offensive after the restart. But, yet again, they struggled to breakdown Fulham and, yet again, the visitors had their own successes going forward. In the 55th minute, Clint Dempsey missed Danny Murphy’s cross at the far post when the merest touch would have seen the American convert.
Van Persie had been relatively quiet thus far but, on the hour, he found space and consequently nearly broke the deadlock. After swivelling a position on the right of the area his cross beat Schwarzer but was smuggled off the line by Chris Baird.
The game had changed. Neither midfield had much control anymore, it was end-to-end stuff and you sensed a goal was on the cards.
Unfortunately, it went Fulham’s way. After a quick Danny Murphy cross, John Arne Riise's run into the area caused consternation in the Arsenal area and Vermaelen’s attempted clearance trickled into the far corner. A sickener for the home side.
Wenger immediately made changes. Mertesacker and Ramsey came off, Abou Diaby and Gervinho entered the fray. As a result, Song moved to centre-back and Arshavin went in to the middle as support for Van Persie.
It was ‘action stations’ for Arsenal.
Only the excellent Schwarzer stopped them equalising 16 minutes from time. Djourou met Van Persie’s corner with a powerful header from point-blank range but the Australian pawed the ball down and Zamora hacked it clear before the Swiss defender could follow up.
It seemed like a massive moment; one that prompted Wenger to introduce Marouane Chamakh.
Gervinho and Santos combined to find Van Persie in the 80th minute. The Dutchman’s control was exquisite, his hack over the bar was not.
It seemed like the first sign of desperation but, in fact, it precipitated the equaliser. Walcott curled over cross from the right and Vermaelen timed his run to the far post with precision before guiding a header past Schwarzer.
After celebrating the leveller, Arsenal went for the winner.
The final stages saw the home side camp in the Fulham half. They had a half-shout for a penalty when an effort from Santos hit Dempsey.
Van Persie went close in the final seconds but there would be no ‘killer’ chance, no fairytale comeback.
Arsenal had to make do with a point.
- Andre Santos Yellow Card
- Mertesacker 68
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Ramsey 68
- Arshavin 76
- van Persie
- Diaby 68
- Chamakh 76
- Gervinho 68
- Senderos Yellow Card
- Etuhu Yellow Card
- Zamora 79 Yellow Card
- Ruiz 75
- Kasami 75
- Andy Johnson 79