Champions forced to mind the gap

Arsenal 2 - Fulham 0
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The Independent Football

There is a brooding sense of concern settling over Highbury at the moment that not even the sweetest of Thierry Henry goals, or more record-breaking from the French striker, can lift. Arsenal got both yesterday but what they really want is the one thing that the world's second-best footballer cannot presently deliver: an incursion into the five-point lead held by Chelsea at the top of the Premiership.

There is no doubt that it is something of an irritation to the current Premiership champions that a narrative unfolding across London should take precedence over their own. On Chelsea, Arsène Wenger affected nonchalance. He protested that he had not sought the news from Stamford Bridge. Henry himself was even more adamant: "I don't care what Chelsea did," he said, "we only care about what we have to do. Then we will see."

For then, read 20 April when Arsenal will cease to have to rely upon their Premiership peers and have the chance to take three points at Stamford Bridge themselves. But yesterday there were signs that they have steadied their season with 10 points from the four games since they lost at Anfield. "I think we have our consistency back," Wenger said, although the superiority his team exalted in for much of yesterday was gambled with briefly in the second half.

Received wisdom dictates that it takes one goal to immobilise Fulham, but it requires two to dispose of them safely. For eventually locating the killer instinct, Arsenal had Robert Pires to thank but the longer the champions waited, the more they risked squandering a one-goal lead and a stupendous disparity in quality.

Chris Coleman's side have been here before. Yesterday, Fulham were no less lame than they were against Manchester United when a last-minute equaliser gave them an unexpected say in the Premiership title race. At Highbury, after a puny first-half performance, Fulham threatened once again to intervene in the destiny of the title before Pires's 11th goal of the season decided the game.

How different it looked after 12 minutes when Henry reduced another solid, competent Premiership defender - Ian Pearce this time - to a disorientated bystander. The Arsenal striker sprinted instantaneously on to Freddie Ljungberg's ball into the area and then lightly touched the brakes. His pursuer Pearce was left facing the Clock End while Henry turned and realigned himself with the Fulham goal before poking the ball past Edwin Van der Sar.

It was a goal that was worthy of the achievement it represented. For Henry that is 128 Premiership goals in 192 games, equalling Ian Wright's club record for league goals - set in 221 appearances. The Frenchman never matched that one exquisite moment again, although he was still his side's most influential player. A cut-back from Pires was clipped against the top of the post by Henry on 69 minutes.

Coleman chose Zesh Rehman to prowl in front of the Fulham defence behind a midfield four, but he was no more effective than Andy Cole, isolated and dispirited in attack.

Yet somehow Fulham conjured a revival after the hour that threatened on two occasions to serve up a great injustice. Collins John sprinted away from Gaël Clichy but shot wide on 63 minutes, while Tomasz Radzinski could not lift a lob over Manuel Almunia shortly afterwards.

The complaint from Wenger after his 30th consecutive London derby without defeat was the same. "Teams come here and just think they can play five in midfield and try to score from set-pieces but it doesn't look so easy for them any more," he said. "We have got back to our consistency. We looked dispirited for a while but I think that now we have our concentration back."

The ease of Arsenal's second goal on 71 minutes begged the question why it had taken them so long to settle the encounter. Ljungberg's cross from the right was dummied by Dennis Bergkamp and trickled through to Pires at the back-post where the winger swept past Moritz Volz and struck his shot past Van der Sar.

"We gave away two poor goals," Coleman said, "they are good enough without making it easy."

Good, but not the best yet. Although Arsenal seem unwilling to acknowledge it just now, even their best moments are being upstaged across town -a reality that no amount of studied disinterest from Wenger and Henry can put aside.

Goals: Henry (12) 1-0; Pires (71) 2-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Lauren, Campbell, Touré, Clichy; Ljungberg (Flamini, 76), Fabregas, Vieira, Pires; Henry, Bergkamp (Van Persie, 78). Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Senderos, Pennant.

Fulham (4-1-4-1): Van der Sar; Volz, Pearce, Knight, Bocanegra; Rehman (Malbranque, 81); John, Pembridge, Diop, Radzinski; Cole (McBride, 66). Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Legwinski, Fontaine

Referee: B Knight (Kent).

Booked: Arsenal: Vieira; Fulham: Rehman, Volz.

Man of the match: Henry.

Attendance: 38,047.

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