By Richard Clarke

What a difference a few days makes. On Wednesday night Arsenal were pegged back by Emile Heskey's late leveller at Anfield. The fourth official had just indicated three minutes of stoppage time when he guided home his header past David Seaman.

Today, it seemed Arsenal would be frustrated again but, as the scoreboard flashed up a similar 180 seconds of stoppage time, the winner finally came.

Gio van Bronckhorst's flick clipped the head of Fulham defender Andy Melville and fell for substitute Francis Jeffers in the area. His shot beat Maik Taylor but Robert Pires made sure by triumphantly sliding home his shot a few feet from the unguarded net. Highbury was ecstatic.

Pires' far post header had given the home side an early lead but Steed Malbranque's half-volley on the half-hour levelled matters at the break.

Despite persistent pressure and ample effort in the second half, Arsenal could not breach the Fulham backline. Until that late, late winner.

The victory maintains our six-point lead over Manchester United, whose victory at Southampton has lifted them to second place.

Before kick-off, Martin Keown and Sylvain Wiltord replaced Pascal Cygan and Ray Parlour respectively in the starting 11 on a sunny yet frosty North London day. Dennis Bergkamp passed a late fitness test on his foot.

Henry might have settled any Arsenal nerves in the best possible way in the second minute. He wriggled through a couple of challenges in the six-yard box but Fulham keeper Maik Taylor managed to deflect his close-range shot in the side netting.

The visitors survived there but they lost midfield lynchpin Sylvain Legwinski with what appeared to be a hamstring injury with 10 minutes gone. Andy Melville was his substitute.

It did not seem to affect the Fulham game-plan and only a superbly-timed tackle from Sol Campbell prevented the visitors taking the lead soon after. Former Gunner Luis Boa Morte slipped a well-weighted ball through to Facundo Sava, who had raced into the area. Campbell slid in perfectly to stab the ball from under his feet as he seemed set to shoot.

The opening goal, as it turned out, would go to Arsenal. In the 17th minute, Henry carved out the opportunity by twisting free of his markers just outside the corner of the area. He drifted over the most delicate of crosses and Pires emerged at the far post to score with a classical downward header.

The home side had most of the possession in the following 10 minutes but, for their part, Fulham played with discipline and ambition.

Their persistence earned them an equaliser just before the half-hour. Steve Finnan's lofted ball into the area was headed high in the air by a combination of Keown and Steve Marlet. It fell invitingly for Malbranque whose crisp half-volley beat David Seaman from 10 yards out.

In reply, Henry bustled past two defenders before forcing Taylor to block at close range then Wiltord just failed to control a through ball when in good position inside the area.

The home side nearly regained the lead five minutes after interval but Henry just failed to get a touch as Wiltord's cross flashed across the face of goal.

However as in the first half, Fulham were resilient and began to ask questions of our defence as the game opened up. Yet, importantly, they were not producing clear-cut chances. The same could not be said of Arsenal.

Wiltord fed Pires on the right and his low cross hit Melville and nearly looped into the net over Taylor. Then in the 65th minute, Wiltord put the ball in the net only to see it disallowed for offside.

It was one of the Frenchman's last acts, Jeffers coming off the bench to replace him as Wenger switched his side to 4-3-3.

The former Everton striker's first act was force Taylor to palm over with a stinging volley from the edge of the area. His next was to poke the ball back for Gilberto to drive a shot against the post in the 73rd minute.

All the attacking was now coming from the home side. It was one of those games where Highbury was willing a goal at every opportunity and howling at every decision from the referee.

Wenger threw on Van Bronckhorst and Kolo Toure at the death, but it just never quite came together in front of goal in the second half. As if to prove the point the normally sure-footed Vieira took an 'air-shot' when set-up cleverly by Jeffers just outside the area.

He nearly made amends with two minutes left but his low drive fizzed narrowly past the post with Taylor left standing.

In the end, Pires did the job for him.


 


   MATCH PICTURES 


Martin Keown denies Sean Davis a chance at goalMaik Taylor saves at the feet of Thierry HenryRobert Pires gets up to head in the opening goalPires celebrates with compatriot Sylvain WiltordPatrick Vieira strides through the midfieldPires slides in with the injury-time winnerPatrick Vieira tussles with Martin Djetou
BUY THIS PICTUREJon Harley can do nothing as Pires slides in
BUY THIS PICTURE

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source Richard Clarke 26 May 2004