Do unto others as they do unto you. Embarrassed a week ago when Aston Villa counter-attacked them at the Emirates to such devastating effect, Arsenal responded in kind for an identical result. They now have more points than from the opening two games of last season, both of which were goalless draws.
Any sense of crisis had been eased by an emphatic 3-0 win away to Fenerbahce, virtually guaranteeing qualification for the Champions’ League group stage, which in turn will, they hope, persuade some of Arsène Wenger’s elusive targets to join the club this week.
“The top players say ‘we want to play in the Champions League’” Wenger had insisted. Those mulling over a move can rest assured of that even before Wednesday’s second leg – though that was not enough for long-term target Karim Benzema with the striker’s agent tweeting yesterday: “Won’t be going to Arsenal. Discussing new contract with Real Madrid.”
Conditions here hardly appeared favourable to Arsenal’s passing game, with almost as many umbrellas going up as at the Oval and spectators positioned under leaking guttering on the ancient Stevenage Road stand retreating to find some cover. Yet the pitch stood up perfectly and with Santi Cazorla’s craft and Theo Walcott’s pace to the fore, it was an impressive performance, just like Wednesday’s in Turkey.
What that suggested is that at the very least, once Olivier Giroud is in confident mood, there is not much wrong with Arsenal’s first XI against most opposition. The remaining question marks concern depth, or lack of, below the obvious starters– which is why they still badly require strengthening – and also how they will fare against the real challengers for the top four positions.
Wenger should be able to rest players for the second leg of the Fenerbahce tie ahead of next Sunday’s north London derby, but will have to be careful who he brings in. With Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thomas Vermaelen all injured, the substitutes’ bench still looks thin. Only after Lukas Podolski had scored his second goal and the team’s third was the young Frenchman Yaya Sanogo, Arsenal’s one signing so far this summer, given a run-out.
With Laurent Koscielny suspended, Bacary Sagna had to play in the centre of defence and Jack Wilshere was the one player given the luxury of a rest for a game starting barely 60 hours after the one in Turkey finished.
Fulham, who finished last season poorly, have managed to find half a dozen new players, which should be enough to keep them out of serious trouble. They now have two vigorous midfield competitors in Scott Parker – making a debut for his fifth London club – and Steve Sidwell, while Adel Taarabt will inject some flair, however inconsistently, and Darren Bent, brought on as a late substitute, can supply some much needed pace alongside the more languid Dimitar Berbatov.
Yesterday, however, in front of the new owner-chairman Shahid Khan, they were too easily exposed by Arsenal’s break-outs and suffered a fifth successive home defeat. “It’s always disappointing to lose the first home game,” said their manager Martin Jol. “But it’s not easy to play against Arsenal when they have three or four or five men in midfield. Cazorla is an amazing player and they found pockets of space on the break.”
Wenger said: “We played the way we wanted to play. We adapted a bit to a different style but we were dangerous when we won the ball back. We had a good mixture of patience and speed.”
That speed was evident from the earliest stages, when Walcott received plenty of ball, enabling him to run at John Arne Riise. He might have scored in the ninth minute, David Stockdale blocking for a corner, and Arsenal had to wait only five more minutes for a goal. The much improved Aaron Ramsey shot from 20 yards, Giroud, just onside, half controlled the ball and jabbed it in for his third goal in the campaign’s three games.
Fulham then enjoyed a good 20 minutes in which it took a fine double save from Wojciech Szczesny to prevent an equaliser. He went down low to parry a typically fierce drive by Riise and was up just as quickly to stop Damien Duff’s follow up.
Towards half-time, however, Arsenal were able to use that pressure to their own advantage in lightning breaks. From one, led by Ramsey and Walcott, Kieran Gibbs hit a dangerous cross-shot, a similar effort from Podolski eluded everyone and in between times Stockdale could only parry Walcott’s shot, Podolski following up to score from the edge of the penalty area.
So Fulham for all their effort, could have been three goals behind at the interval. Midway through the second half came yet another classic break. Giroud was involved, then Walcott and Cazorla, who set up Podolski for a fierce drive it through the legs into far corner of the net.
At least Fulham had the encouragement of a Bent goal, a typical poacher’s effort after a sublime touch and turn from Berbatov.
Fulham (4-4-2): Stockdale; Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Riise; Duff (Bent, 59), Sidwell (Karagounis, 75), Parker, Taarabt (Kacaniklic, 62); Kasami, Berbatov.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Sagna, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Ramsey, Rosicky (Wilshere, 70); Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski (Sanogo, 81); Giroud (Monreal, 72).
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Cazorla (Arsenal)
Match rating: 7/10