By Chris Harris
Arsenal have it all to do to book a place in next season’s Champions League after their top-flight frustrations continued on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger’s side were held to their fourth successive goalless draw in the Premier League by a spirited Fulham team. They now trail fourth-placed Aston Villa by five points but that gap could widen when Martin O’Neill’s team host Stoke on Sunday.
Robin van Persie went closer than anyone to breaking the deadlock at Emirates Stadium but the combined efforts of the woodwork and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer kept out the Dutchman’s best efforts.
The Gunners are now unbeaten in 15 games but, at this stage of the season, draws are not enough. They were superb in the Champions League in midweek but need to transmit their European form to the domestic stage - and quickly.
Wenger sprang something of a surprise before kick-off, replacing Nicklas Bendtner with Carlos Vela in his starting line-up. Abou Diaby kept his place in the side after a speedy recovery from a calf problem while Andrey Arshavin, ineligible in Europe, returned on the right flank. Samir Nasri, so impressive when allowed to roam against Roma, started just behind the main striker, Van Persie.
Fulham arrived with perhaps the most curious record in the Premier League. Roy Hodgson’s men have eight victories at Craven Cottage this season - only Manchester United have a better home record – but had yet to win on the road. A total of 13 goals on their travels and five goalless draws suggested that Fulham would be no more adventurous than Arsenal’s most recent domestic opponents, West Ham and Sunderland.
How wrong we were. The visitors fielded two strikers, a clutch of forward-thinking midfielders and, having already beaten Arsenal once this season, decided to have a go.
It made for a frenetic, open affair with space aplenty in midfield and chances at both ends.
Fulham were in charge early on. Andy Johnson fired the first shot across Arsenal’s bows with just 53 seconds on the clock and five minutes later Simon Davies fired over on the turn after Danny Murphy’s dinked pass. Johnson screwed a good chance wide after spinning William Gallas on the edge of the box and only a fine block from Bacary Sagna denied Clint Dempsey.
Arsenal were taken aback. Vela and Arshavin had been stationed on the flanks to try and unlock negative opponents. Instead, those attacking players were forced onto the back foot.
The home side eventually found their stride and should have taken the lead in the 10th minute. Arshavin wriggled free on the right and picked out Van Persie with his cross but Schwarzer tipped his point-blank header over the bar.
Arshavin himself was next to go close. A slick move from left to right ended with Nasri sliding a first-time pass into the Russian’s path. With the angle narrowing, Arshavin slashed his effort high and wide.
On the half-hour Nasri found space inside the area but over-elaborated and was eventually crowded out. Then Van Persie raced through only to hit his venomous right-foot effort straight at Schwarzer. The Dutchman was first to the loose ball but Aaron Hughes deflected his second shot wide.
Back came Fulham. Zamora shot straight at Manuel Almunia and then Murphy, busy pulling the strings from midfield, fizzed a long-range effort just over. Johnson also went close as the visitors continued to defy their pre-match doubters.
Arsenal, with Nasri and Arshavin on the periphery, were in a real battle. Wenger responded by switching his two playmakers at the break with the Russian moving into the centre. It was a subtle switch but it galvanised the Gunners.
Arshavin was immediately more influential. One driving run from the new boy forced a vital intervention from Brede Hangeland. Then the Russian saw his low shot inadvertently blocked by Vela.
Arsenal were well on top now and came within inches breaking the deadlock in the 58th minute. Sagna planted a cross onto Van Persie’s head but the Dutchman’s effort flicked off the outside of the post with Schwarzer well beaten.
On came Bendtner as Wenger added ballast to his front line. But Fulham weren’t finished and a dangerous break, led by Davies, ended with Johnson’s shot cannoning off Gallas and looping onto the top of the net.
With 20 minutes left Bendtner’s clever backheel found Van Persie inside the box but he couldn’t keep his effort down. Then Schwarzer scrambled to his left to keep out Diaby’s near-post header from Van Persie’s corner.
Arshavin found the side-netting with seven minutes remaining as Arsenal threw everything at their London rivals. But this was no siege. Fulham had moments of their own and could have snatched a late winner themselves.
A draw was probably a fair result but a point won't win prizes. For Arsenal, the margin of error just got narrower.
Referee: Peter Walton
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