It was appropriate that there should be a Gallic flourish to decide the predominantly Anglo-French encounter down by the riverside yesterday afternoon. Candidates to provide it included Fulham's outstanding player Steed Malbranque who had earlier scored an equaliser to bring his team back into the game Sylvain Legwinski and the late substitute Steve Marlet. But, with Patrick Vieira driving Arsenal on as usual, it was Thierry Henry who claimed the decisive goal eight minutes from the finish.
That effectively ended the home side's bold recovery, and another Frenchman Sylvain Wiltord even set up a rather flattering third goal in stoppage time for Dennis Bergkamp. Victory was sufficient to send Arsenal to the top of the Premiership, giving Arsène Wenger reason to believe his team can improve on their run of three successive seasons as runners-up.
An additional bonus was to improve self-belief after the flaccid defeat in Majorca last week for Wednesday's second Champions' League match against Schalke 04. Francis Jeffers, making a lively full debut, did his prospects of starting in that game no harm, but Wenger may be tempted to tighten the defence by reuniting Tony Adams with Martin Keown; Sol Campbell, Tottenham fans will be delighted to learn, has not yet settled in his new habitat.
Fulham need not be overly discouraged, and having won only one of their first five matches will be a useful reminder to supporters spoilt by four years of almost unbroken success that not even Mohamed Al Fayed's millions have yet bridged the gap behind the best teams. Central defence is the area that appears to be in greatest need of strengthening next, though Jean Tigana may be prepared to wait for Alain Goma to recover from a hip injury.
Andy Melville, one of those found wanting by Henry and Jeffers yesterday, almost headed his side in front after three minutes, but was forced to admit later: "It was a lesson learnt out there today. We got away with it lightly in the first half, when there was only one team in it." That team was the one wearing red shirts.
There were nine French players on the pitch at one stage or another, as well as the two managers, and they featured strongly in all four goals. In the 16th minute, Robert Pires chased Campbell's mis-timed header towards the corner flag and crossed; Henry sliced a shot that Malbranque unwittingly diverted towards Fredrik Ljungberg, who provided a smart Swedish finish to a move made in Paris.
Bookings for Vieira, Keown and Lauren emphasised how Arsenal had some defending to do, but for once Fulham could make nothing of the resulting free-kicks. In the last 20 minutes of the half, the visitors had half-a-dozen opportunities to double their lead. Henry was involved in most of them, most threateningly when shooting fiercely from 25 yards; Edwin van der Sar could not hold the shot but beat Jeffers to the rebound.
The home crowd had gone distinctly quiet after the goal. They found their voices again, at full volume, three minutes after the interval. Luis Boa Morte left the labouring Campbell behind in a race down the right and lured Keown out of position before finding Malbranque, who lashed his shot high into the net.
John Collins' outrageous back-heeled overhead kick reflected his team's sudden rush of confidence and his cross on the hour prompted Legwinski into a header that David Seaman appeared to keep out with his broad beam.
Arsenal then found their second wind, even though Campbell's uncertainty might have cost them heavily when he lost possession to Boa Morte and Marlet's shot went straight at Seaman. Eight minutes from the end, Ljungberg's through pass and Henry's finish brought a victory which ought to have been sealed in the first half.
Bergkamp's goal in the final minute of stoppage time, as Wiltord cut the ball back from the byline, was cruel on Fulham. They will soon learn, however, after 33 years away, that the top division has little time for romanticism.
Fulham 1 Arsenal 3
Malbranque 48; Ljungberg 17, Henry 82, Bergkamp 90
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