'Footballing immortality' now a step away

Fulham 0 Arsenal 1

Arsenal's unbeaten League campaign stretched out to 37 games yesterday but the fact they notched up their 25th victory of this season owed as much to Edwin van der Sar as anyone from the newly-crowned Premiership champions.

The Dutch goalkeeper played the game of a lifetime last November when he repelled everything Arsenal chucked at him in the League match at Highbury. It finished goalless that day, almost entirely because of the former Juventus man's brilliance.

This though was no red letter day for the man in the red shirt as his horrendous mistake gifted Jose Antonio Reyes a tap-in as early as the ninth minute. Thereafter Fulham were chasing the game, but the Cottagers hardly looked like doing what no team has achieved since Leeds at Highbury in May last year, namely, beat the Gunners in a Premiership match.

Chris Coleman, the Fulham manager, revealed his own disappointment, saying: "I'm pig sick about losing and Edwin is gutted. He held his hands up at half-time but he's had a magnificent season."

There were few scares for Arsenal while Thierry Henry, the Players' Player of the Year, was way below par. Two overhit corners summed up his game but, of course, his contribution to Arsenal's season has come at far more important junctures than this. His 90th-minute free-kick, tipped over by Van der Sar, at least proved Henry was still vaguely interested in the proceedings here.

But the fact that Ashley Cole, who was energy personified, was Arsenal's best player speaks volumes for the way they are playing out the remainder of their season.

This did at least bring an end to the Gunners' run of three consecutive draws, the first of which was the 2-2 result at Tottenham a fortnight ago that brought Arsenal their third championship under Arsène Wenger. Their last victory had been the 5-0 thumping of Leeds three weeks ago but this never threatened to come close to that demolition job.

For Fulham it was their last game at Loftus Road after two years at the home of Queen's Park Rangers and although Coleman felt they were unlucky to bow out on a losing note, they will relish their return to Craven Cottage in August.

They certainly had the personnel in their team with an incentive to do well. Three Fulham players - Moritz Volz, Junichi Inamoto and Luis Boa Morte - have all tried their luck at Highbury in the Wenger era but all have been found wanting, only to find first-team places in West London. All three made positive impressions as well, with Volz, the right-back, sending one shot across the bows of Jens Lehmann with 12 minutes left, although it evaded the far post.

Wenger had made one change from the team that drew 1-1 at Portsmouth on Tuesday, replacing David Bentley with the greater guile and experience of Robert Pires, although the Frenchman, like his compatriot Henry, had a negligible effect on this game.

Having a greater impact at the moment is Reyes, who scored his second League goal in as many games. When Alain Goma presented Van der Sar with a simple back-pass there seemed to be no danger. He trapped the ball with his left foot and while he was transferring it to his stronger right foot, the Spaniard nicked it away from him and found the empty net. Wenger said: "I'm giving him a run of games and he's getting better and better."

Nine minutes later, at the other end, Boa Morte was denied by a combination of Cole and Lehmann. Inamoto lobbed the ball forward and as the Portuguese international ran on to it, Cole forced him into a quick shot that Lehmann blocked.

Arsenal appear to have become more preoccupied with preserving their unbeaten record than they are with actually going for the jugular of vulnerable teams.

As only Cole appeared to have much left in the tank, there were few occasions when Van der Sar was threatened again. Reyes tried his luck from further out after 70 minutes but this was largely a containing job as Fulham tried to stretch their guests. Steed Malbranque resorted to an overhead kick from Sean Davis's cross but that went over Lehmann's crossbar.

Arsenal's last game of a potentially historic season is at home to Leicester next Saturday and if they come through that unbeaten, Wenger feels his side will have achieved what he called "footballing immortality". He added: "If we make this record it will be football history. I don't think it will be done again."

Coleman was not so impressed, saying that if they wanted to be regarded as a great team they need to win consecutive championships as well as a European Cup, in the mould of Liverpool and Manchester United in seasons gone by.

There is the gauntlet and Arsenal, surely, will not be slow to pick it up.

Goal: Reyes (9) 0-1.

Fulham (4-5-1): Van der Sar 4; Bocanegra 5, Pearce 5, Goma 5, Volz 5; Malbranque 6, Inamoto 6 (McBride 5, 58), Legwinski 6, Djetou 5 (John 5, 58), Davis 5; Boa Morte 6. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Hudson, Petta.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 6; Cole 7, Touré 5, Campbell 5, Lauren 5; Pires 5 (Clichy, 78), Vieira 6, Parlour 5, Ljungberg 5 (Keown, 87); Reyes 6 (Aliadière, 78) Henry 4. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Bergkamp.

Referee: M Dean (Lancashire) 6.

Bookings: Fulham: Goma, Davis; Arsenal: Vieira, Henry, Parlour.

Man of the match: Cole.

Attendance: 18,102.

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