Sammy’s sweet feet save stuttering Arsenal

Nasri slams home the opening goal

Had it not been for the twinkling toes of Samir Nasri, the enduring image of Saturday’s match would have been the almost comical collision between Laurent Koscielny and Sebastian Squillaci in the build up to Fulham’s equaliser. It was a farcical moment, horrifically epitomising the defensive frailties rarely possessed by eventual Champions. It was a bad omen for a side looking to eradicate defensive flaws, and whose new berth at the summit will be a challenge to maintain.

Prior to any moments of unintentional hilarity from the back four, Arsenal began the match very strongly. As has become the norm at home in recent years, Arsenal rapidly attacked Mark Schwarzer’s goal with a deluge of early chances. First Arshavin, fresh from a week of personal achievement, was the quickest to react to a rebound in the penalty box. A Jack Wilshere free-kick ended up bouncing into the air, and Arshavin instinctively met the dropping ball, yet his shot was not clinical enough and comfortably saved. Moments later the Russian combined with Nasri to provide the crowd with a dress rehearsal of the opening goal. A darting run at the heart of the Fulham defence culminated in a slick through-ball to Nasri, whose flicked finished rolled just wide of the far post. This passage of play was shortly replicated by the pair, as another penetrative burst of skill and speed from Arshavin presented Nasri with the sort of opportunity a man in his form doesn’t squander twice. Stepping away from two onrushing challenges, the Frenchman topped off a sumptuous piece of poise and balance by smashing the ball past the keeper. Pure brilliance from a player fast becoming a fan favourite and indispensable talisman.

The early barrage failed to cease after the first goal, something which will please Wenger just as much as the ensuing profligacy will frustrate him. Chances rapidly fell to Alex Song and Marouane Chamakh, both passing up the opportunity to double the lead, before another teasing run from Nasri almost forced an own goal. So often has this symptomatic behaviour been punished at the Emirates that the fact that Fulham soon equalised would have raised few eyebrows. A hopeful lofted ball caused our two haphazard Centre Halves unforeseeable havoc, as a clash of heads between the pair paved the way for Kamara to slot past Fabianski. It was a painful embodiment of a defensive partnership unrecognisable from the stalwarts of yester-year, and not only in a metaphorical sense. Kosicelny, dazed and in visible discomfort, had to be stretchered off in place of Johan Djourou; how Tony Adams and Martin Keown must cringe at such a predicament.

Whilst this new centre-half pairing took a while to re-adapt, Koscielny’s hospitalisation proved to be a blessing in disguise. With the exception of another Diomansy Kamara one-on-one, this time saved by Fabianski after Arsenal’s high line was again exposed, Djourou’s performance was admirable. Extended periods of injury have often halted the young Swiss’ pursuits of a first-team spot, most notably an 18 month long knee injury which also required a sufficient rehabilitation period. Now fighting fit, Djourou has often shown immense strength, pace and aerial ability this season. Whilst his positional sense leaves room for improvement, he has been mostly impressive, and was superb in a tense second half. Unlucky not to start against Tottenham, many will be hoping he plays the full 90 minutes at Old Trafford next week in the continued absence of Thomas Vermaelen.

Other than a promising display from Djourou, little will be taken from a second half in which Arsenal could have so easily lost out. Chances came and went in the shape of Thomas Rosicky and Andrei Arshavin, and Fulham came closing to bulging the home net. A final flourish from the home side was moments away as the game edged towards its last hurrah, yet the fans needn’t have worried. Samir Nasri, often isolated in a tumultuous second half, burst back into life with ten minutes remaining. The way in which he danced in between the flailing legs of Fulham defenders, and then skipped round Schwarzer was resonant of Lionel Messi. The ball seemed fastened to his toe, and the awareness shown having rounded the keeper was mature, pivoting onto his stronger right foot in order to make no mistake. For the third time in a week Nasri had brilliantly dribbled round a keeper, yet this time failed to make the same error as against Villa and Wigan, knocking the ball into the unguarded net.

Fulham continued to concern the home fans during the games final moments. A  Zoltan Gera bicycle kick whistled past the foot of the post, minutes after Fabianski and been beaten to a lose ball and Van Persie was called upon to clear off the line. Dickson Etuhu also came close, yet in fairness Arsenal dealt surprisingly well with a torrent of aerial pressure, Song particularly excelling in this department. Relief greeted the final whistle, an emotion which, along with despair, has been worryingly prominent at the Emirates this season. Home form will have to improve, yet away form is what counts next, as Old Trafford looms.

ARSENAL: Lukasz Fabianski (7), Bacary Sagna (8), Sebastian Squilacci (6), Laurent Koscielny (5), Gael Clichy (7), Alex Song (7), Jack Wilshere (7), Thomas Rosicky (7), Samir Nasri (9), Andrei Arshavin (8), Marouane Chamakh (7). SUBS: Johan Djourou (8), Robin Van Persie (7), Theo Walcott (6).

FULHAM: Mark Schwarzer (7), John Paintsil (7), Brede Hangeland (7), Aaron Hughes (6), Matthew Briggs (6), Simon Davies (8), Danny Murphy (7), Dickson Etuhu (7), Zoltan Gera (7), Clint Dempsey (7), Diomansy Kamara (8) SUBS: Chris Baird (7), Andy Johnson (6), Eddie Johnson (N/A)

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