Is it any wonder that football managers either go grey or lose their hair altogether? Fulham’s Martin Jol, of the bald eagle style, brought Steve Sidwell back into the side after a three-match ban for being sent off for a wild tackle in his last game; and was just a few yards away as the former Arsenal man launched himself into another one on Mikel Arteta to receive a second red card in 12 minutes of football.
Coming so early, the dismissal inevitably distorted the course of the game, although Arsène Wenger would have gained a few more grey follicles as his team took until just before half-time before scoring, and then incomprehensibly sat back during the second half. In the end they were hanging on; Olivier Giroud was sent off, albeit harshly; and if Sian Massey had not spotted that Stanislav Manolev was offside they would have conceded an equaliser and remained behind Chelsea in fourth place, having played two games more.
As it is, they go back into third, two ahead of the west London side and five in front of Tottenham, who also have two games in hand, starting this afternoon. But Giroud will miss three crucial matches against Manchester United, Queens Park Rangers and Wigan unless the decision by the FA Cup final referee, Andre Marriner, to dismiss him for a tackle on Manolev in the last minute is overturned.
Once Per Mertesacker headed in following a free-kick, the danger for Arsenal was always that control would lapse into casualness, and so it proved. Fulham’s determination, typified by Urby Emanuelson, the Dutch international on loan from Milan, kept them in the game and forced Wenger to throw on Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski from the substitutes’ bench. Anxious visiting supporters packing the Putney End were reduced to chanting “attack, attack, attack”, but their team still did not manage a shot on target during the whole of the second period.
“It was tight because we couldn’t score the second goal,” Wenger said. “Our first half was quite good but in the second I put it down to psychological reasons. You are a bit under pressure when you play 11 against ten, you risk a second yellow card. The final ten minutes were really nervy. But in the end we had fantastic spirt and it’s still a very important win for us.”
Wenger had protested about what he perceived as Everton’s heavy handed tactics in the draw at the Emirates last Tuesday and, not surprisingly, he felt Sidwell’s tackle deserved a red card.
Jol, once a fearsome tackler himself, could only offer the justification for Sidwell’s challenge that: “It was not intentional. I was annoyed with him and it spoilt the game a bit but if you’re consistent it was a red card.” He was right to add: “I think we deserved to get something out of the game.”
Once again a London derby – the previous one was at home to local rivals Queens Park Rangers – was no excuse for the player’s lack of discipline. His foot was high and caught Arteta a painful blow as they went for a 50-50 ball close to the technical areas, leaving Sidwell with that long walk to the Cottage dressing rooms in the far corner of the pitch.
Bryan Ruiz dropped deeper than his starting position, leaving Dimitar Barbatov to forage alone, yet the four real chances from then on were equally divided between the teams. Twice before half-time, Wojciech Szczesny had to make sprawling low saves at the expense of a corner. First, the excellent Emanuelson sent Berbatov through to shoot, and then the Dutchman won the ball back from a careless Nacho Monreal and tested the goalkeeper in the same place.
For Arsenal Giroud was unlucky to strike the far post after receiving from Santi Cazorla at a time when the visitors were finding it hard to break through. But just as Fulham thought they might survive until half-time, Theo Walcott floated in a free-kick instead of driving the ball at goal and Laurent Koscielny won the first header, nodding across goal for Mertesacker to put in. As against Chelsea in midweek, when John Terry scored with two headers, Fulham’s marking was poor.
They tightened up in the second half, holding an unambitious Arsenal comfortably and breaking out threateningly from time to time. In the 70th minute Manolev, the right-back, played two neat combinations and forced Szczesny to turn his cross-shot over the bar, and seven minutes later, the goalkeeper could only push out Kieran Richardson’s free-kick, but the assistant referee rightly ruled that Manolev had strayed offside before knocking in the rebound.
Fulham remain in with a chance of a third successive finish in the top 10, and even if that proves difficult, it seemed harsh on Jol to be asked afterwards if they were safe from relegation. They can continue to play carefree football for the next month, which many will envy them.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Manolev, Senderos, Hangeland, Richardson; Emanuelson (Frei, 87), Enoh, Sidwell, Kacaniklic (Petric, 85); Ruiz; Berbatov.
Arsenal(4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Arteta, Ramsey; Walcott (Wilshere, 71), Rosicky (Podolski, 71), Cazorla (Vermaelen, 90); Giroud.
Referee: Andre Marriner.
Man of the match: Emanuelson (Fulham)
Match rating: 7/10