Frustration for Wenger as Arteta blows late chance
Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00
In Arsene they trust? This was an afternoon to test the faith of the most committed Arsenal follower. Never mind broader concerns over a seven-year lack of silverware, transfer policy and boardroom politics, Fulham, who have never won on a visit to Arsenal, heaped up a fresh batch of problems for the increasingly beleaguered Arsenal manager.
Wenger's slipshod side let a two-goal lead dissolve, then Mikel Arteta wasted an injury-time penalty that would have grabbed a flattering victory as Fulham took a fully deserved point from a roller-coaster afternoon at the Emirates.
It leaves Wenger heading into a crucial 10-day spell, covering the north London derby against Tottenham and a crucial Champions League visit from Montpellier, on the back of Arsenal's worst start to a Premier League campaign. With just one win from their last four league outings, and defensive frailties all so apparent, the timing could scarcely be worse.
"It was very frustrating because we had opportunities to win the game," Wenger said. "We were caught napping and lacked urgency defensively. In the second half we gave it absolutely everything. I have to give credit to the players, for what they have done in the last three games is physically amazing. We continued to go forward. But to concede three goals at home is not a historical performance."
Arsenal enjoyed the considerable benefit of an early breakthrough.
Lukas Podolski made such a nuisance of himself in the visitors' penalty area that Olivier Giroud was able to time a late run to perfection, leaving Aaron Hughes trailing as he met Theo Walcott's 11th-minute corner perfectly for the fifth goal of his first season in north London.
Fulham's pain doubled 12 minutes later. Temporarily down to 10 men following the departure of Kieran Richardson, who had pulled up abruptly, Fulham were again slow to deal with Arsenal's precise incision. Santi Cazorla rolled the ball into the path of Arteta, who clipped it through the legs of Chris Baird towards Podolski. The German stepped ahead of Sascha Riether to turn beyond goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
Game over? Someone forgot to tell Fulham. Six minutes later they were back in contention, Dimitar Berbatov gifted space in front of goal to apply an unchallenged header to Bryan Ruiz's corner. It was the Bulgarian's fourth goal of an increasingly profitable summer switch from Manchester United and, to home supporters' consternation, he and the outstanding Ruiz were beginning to play a highly influential role.
Two minutes later he sent a shot from the edge of the area wide of Vito Mannone's goal but shortly before the interval he played a key role in a Fulham leveller that stunned the home crowd. Collecting the ball just inside the Arsenal penalty area, he angled a cross for substitute Alex Kacaniklic, peeling off Arsenal's central defenders, to head in.
Arsenal's desire to right the wrongs of their first-half lapses were evident in a rapid resumption in which Giroud was inches away from connecting with Walcott's tantalising cross, before the England forward scurried through the middle to fire over. Walcott departed shortly afterwards with a nagging buttock muscle injury.
Yet first they had to overcome yet another defensive slip. Arteta was caught unawares by Ruiz and then bundled over the Fulham playmaker as he bore down on Mannone. Berbatov's spot-kick was coolly dispatched low into the corner of the net.
Stung again, Arsenal responded immediately. Podolski's effort spun off a post but rolled to Walcott, who crossed back for Giroud to head home his second of the afternoon.
It could have gone either way. Laurent Koscielny denied Berbatov with a brilliantly executed last-ditch tackle; Giroud found his accuracy had deserted him when, left unattended, he headed Walcott's cross wide.
Wenger threw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the fray and Arsenal forced three corners in the four minutes of added time. With 30 seconds to go, the unlucky Riether could hardly have withdrawn his arm any further, but referee Phil Dowd was merciless when it was hit by Andrey Arshavin's cross.
Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, suggested Arshavin had driven the ball deliberately at the Fulham right-back. Wenger thought not. Either way, justice was done as Schwarzer threw himself to his left to push away Arteta's low spot-kick.
"We had the penalty to win the game, but you can't blame Arteta for that is part of the game," Wenger said. "The positives are that we can score goals. The negatives are to concede three goals at home."
Irrespective of how Arshavin won the penalty, Wenger added: "I would only go for deliberate handball for penalties. We conceded one at Manchester United last week that was similar. It was more protection than deliberate handball."
Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, was pleased with his side's endeavour. "We played some fantastic stuff. We were very brave. I wanted to dominate them and I feel we did that. Our play to Ruiz and Berbatov was fantastic and we could have scored more goals."
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