Halsey change of heart derails Coleman plan

Fulham 0 - Arsenal 3
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The Independent Football

Two quite different problems will confront Arsène Wenger and Chris Coleman this week.

Two quite different problems will confront Arsène Wenger and Chris Coleman this week; for Wenger there is that of not allowing the frustration of repeated failures in the Champions' League to undermine Arsenal's effort when they face PSV Eindhoven at Highbury tomorrow. "It's a different form of football, teams keep the ball more than they do in the Premiership and we've got to show more patience than we have in the past," he said.

For Coleman it is a quite different story. For an hour at a revamped Craven Cottage on Saturday the underdogs were Arsenal's equals, but ultimately the effect of two controversial decisions by the referee, Mark Halsey, in the first half left Fulham without the will to respond when the visitors stepped up a gear.

Halsey's explanation for changing his mind after awarding Fulham a penalty when Ashley Cole's lunge brought down Andy Cole in the 39th minute was astonishing. "My first reaction was 'penalty'," Halsey said. "But Arsenal's protests and the fact that Fulham had not appealed strongly left some doubt in my mind, especially as I would have had to think about dismissing Ashley Cole for denying a goal-scoring opportunity."

"I consulted my assistant, Dave Bryan, who had a great view of the incident and told me that Andy Cole had played the ball into the goalkeeper's [Jens Lehmann] hands. The TV replays show that clearly."

Although Halsey brushed aside Arsenal's penalty claim when Thierry Henry's ankles were clipped by Moritz Volz, indicating that the Arsenal man had dived, Fulham were further infuriated by the referee's decision to rule out a header from Collins John on the stroke of half-time.

It was almost an hour after the game before Coleman regained enough composure to speak about the incidents, immediately stating that Halsey was "crap". "He had a terrible match," he said, "a stinker." The implication contained in his remark, "Arsenal are on a hell of a run and it will take a brave man to end it," could put Coleman in trouble with the authorities, but in yielding to Arsenal's protests, Halsey created a dangerous precedent.

Before the season began Coleman made a conscious decision to expand on the style that enabled Fulham to finish comfortably placed in the Premiership last spring. "In many games we had five men in midfield and just one up front," he said. "It worked for us but I felt the time had come to be more ambitious. It's a gamble, but we showed today that even against a team of Arsenal's calibre we can hold our own playing more adventurous football. Who's to say how the game might have gone had we got ourselves in front in the first half?"

Taking into account that a number of Arsenal's players had been away on international duty, Coleman decided to go for it. Fulham's response was sufficient for an hour to make Arsenal fight for the right to prove their technical superiority. At the heart of it was a stirring contest in midfield between Patrick Vieira and Papa Bouba Diop. Sent off playing for France on Wednesday, Vieira was sufficiently rattled and booked for a second offence on Andy Cole.

It took more than those first-half disappointments to douse Fulham's fire but Dennis Bergkamp's class and the strength on Arsenal's bench proved insurmountable obstacles. Even at 35, there is no better player in the Premiership than Bergkamp at picking out runners and following the introduction of Jose Reyes for Robert Pires in the 61st minute, Fulham were quickly broken. The gifted young Spaniard found Henry, who drew in three defenders before putting Fredrik Ljungberg in for the opening goal.

Arsenal attacked again and Bergkamp's astute pass into Fulham's penalty area was nudged into his own net by Zat Knight under pressure from Ljungberg. Arsenal took their tally to three in nine minutes when Reyes again broke through along the left for his fifth goal in five Premiership games.

Still, Coleman could not contain his bitterness. "All Arsenal's goals were perfectly good," he said. "I've got no complaints about them. But we should have been ahead against the best team in Europe." It's something Arsenal still have to prove.

Goals: Ljungberg (62) 0-1; Knight (65) og 0-2; Reyes (71) 0-3.

Fulham (4-1-3-2): Van der Sar; Volz, Knight, Pearce, Bocanegra; Diop; Legwinski (Radzinski, 76), Pembridge, Boa Morte (McBride, 83); Andy Cole, John. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Goma, McKinlay.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Lauren, Cygan, Touré, Ashley Cole; Pires (Reyes,61), Vieira (Fabregas, 75), Gilberto, Ljungberg (Pennant, 73); Bergkamp; Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Clichy.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Fulham: Van der Sar. Arsenal: Vieira.

Man of the match: Bergkamp.

Attendance: 21,681.