Come the final whistle, Mikel Arteta had his head in his hands. Fulham's players huddled around their goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. Arsène Wenger looked bleak. Martin Jol thundered towards the referee Phil Dowd. The fact that Arsenal had at one stage been 2-0 up, next pegged back to 3-2, then level at 3-3, and with the final twist in the tale awarded a stoppage time penalty which was saved ... it was bedlam.
The signs that there were goals to be had were evident as Fulham did not appear to be entirely switched on when the game began, and in the 11th minute, suffered the consequences. Theo Walcott drilled in a corner, and Olivier Giroud bulldozed through unopposed to thump the ball goalwards. Although Mark Schwarzer got a hand to it, there was too much power on the Frenchman's header.
Arsenal's second came when the visitors were down to ten men, after Kieran Richardson pulled up with a damaged hamstring. In the time it took for the substitute to be readied, Mikel Arteta capitalised on Fulham's disorganisation at the back. He pounced on a loose ball in the area, which had slithered into the danger zone. The Spaniard deftly tapped the ball across goal for Lukas Podolksi to jab in Arsenal's second.
But Arsenal being masters at turning a comfortable situation into a an anxiety attack, it didn't take long for Fulham to grasp lifeline. Laurent Koscielny overcomplicated matters and needlessly handed Bryan Ruiz the initiative. The Costa Rican's lofted corner exposed Arsenal's own problems with marking, and Dimitar Berbatov, stationed right in the middle of goal, only needed to take a gentle amble back to find the space to glance past Vito Mannone.
Fulham equalised with a neat and imaginative passing move. Steve Sidwell and Sascha Riether combined to release Berbatov, whose delicate cut back was met by substitute Alex Kacaniklic. The young Swede steered in a downward header from 12 yards. It was well placed, if not particularly powerful, but Mannone was cursing as he could not get a strong enough hand to repel a deserved equaliser.
Fulham's creative leaders, Berbatov and the effortlessly stylish Ruiz, were dominant. And it might have got even worse for Arsenal and Fulham almost snatched a third before half time. Ashkan Dejeghah tried a showy backheel with the goal at his mercy.
A voice in the crowd after half time summed up Arsenal's woes. "Can we have the ball please?" someone yelled plaintively? Basics like possession, pressing, penetration were conspicuous by their absence.
Fulham needed only to keep playing with purpose to make inroads. The smell of blood was thick in the air. Arsenal looked headed for a calamity when the alert Ruiz pickpocketed Arteta, whose attempted recovery was a hopeless cause. Fulham penalty. Berbatov ambled towards the ball and stroked past Mannone as if he was not there.
Walcott did as much as anyone to try to lift Arsenal back up off the floor. He twice went close, and when Giroud drove against a post, Walcott sped to fetch the rebound and picked out the big man. Again Giroud was unstoppable with his head. Since he opened his account for the season just over a month ago, Giroud has plundered six goals in eight starts for club and country.
Back came Fulham. Berbatov was halted by a fine double tackle from Koscielny. Giroud then demonstrated his force on the ground with a superb spin and run followed by a walloped shot that Schwarzer did well to handle.
Deep into stoppage time, substitute Andrey Arshavin whacked a cross at Riether, and although he was close enough, and the ball came quickly enough, to suggest ball to hand was unavoidable, the referee signalled for a penalty.
Arteta hit his spot kick low and Schwarzer plunged to his left to tip the ball away. Emotions flowed in every direction.
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