By Richard Clarke
After elation on Tuesday it was frustration on Sunday as Arsenal played out a 0-0 draw with Fulham at Highbury.
It would be easy to put this disappointing result down to "after the Lord Mayor's Show" syndrome following that fabulous 5-1 win at Inter Milan. But in truth, Arsenal played well and the main reason for this result was Fulham keeper Edwin van der Sar.
The Dutchman made a string of fine saves in the first half as Arsenal dominated. Arsène Wenger's side continued to pick the Fulham lock after the break but Van der Sar kept slamming the door.
And, as the game went on, the visitors began to fancy their chances on the break. In fact the clearest opportunity of the game came to Steed Malbranque midway through the second period. Fortunately he nodded an inviting cross wide of the upright.
Still, despite the fact Fulham won 3-1 at Old Trafford earlier in the season, this will be looked upon as two points dropped. That was the lead Arsenal held at the top of the Premiership at full time but with Chelsea and Manchester United kicking-off against each other across London just as this game ended, that was certain to be clawed back.
It was a crisp, cold afternoon in the capital. The rain that had swept the capital for the past few days had relented and, in its place, there was a welcome winter sun. Perfect weather for football.
Injuries and suspension meant Ars?ne Wenger's XI virtually picked itself. Thierry Henry, the hero of Tuesday night's incredible 5-1 victory at Inter Milan, had recovered from a hamstring tweak. He was joined up front by the Dennis Bergkamp, who had recovered from a similar ailment.
Ray Parlour had injured his hamstring at the San Siro so he joined Patrick Vieira (thigh), Sylvain Wiltord (groin), Martin Keown and Lauren (both suspended) on the sidelines. It meant Kolo Toure continued at right back with Pascal Cygan staying at centre half.
The sight of four youngsters on the bench showed Wenger was using the outer reaches of his squad. But then the same outfit had hit eight goals in victories at Birmingham and Milan.
Another Arsenal youngster, Moritz Volz, started at right back for Fulham. His loan spell is set to end on December 31.
The West Londoners came with ambition. The dangerous Louis Saha would have had an early chance if he had properly controlled a long pass that had drifted over the head of Cygan.
But Arsenal were showing no fatigue from that Inter victory and started ask questions of the Fulham defence. Freddie Ljungberg intercepted Saha's poor pass and curled a right foot shot toward goal from 25 yards. Van der Sar made a simple save.
On the quarter-hour, the Swede's scamper forward was spotted by Bergkamp on the half way line. The Dutchman unleashed a pin-point pass to gave Ljungberg a yard of space behind the Fulham defence. He tried to chip Van der Sar but the former Juventus keeper flicked up his left-hand and diverted the ball wide for a corner.
Midway through the half, the influential Pires sent Ashley Cole sprinting into the area. The left back could have shot but he cut the ball inside for Henry and the chance was smothered.
It seemed a goal was coming it was just a matter of time. Henry hacked wide, Edu and Pires followed suit.
On the half-hour, it nearly arrived when Pires danced around Volz on the left and cut inside to feed Henry, who first-time sidefoot shot was batted away by Van der Sar. Two minutes later, the keeper was extended again when Bergkamp cracked a dipping shot from 25 yards. The Fulham No 1 recovered quickly to stop the onrushing Ljungberg prodding home as the ball ran loose for a second in the six-yard box.
Van der Sar was starting to work overtime. He parried the ball aside from Henry's curling right-shot from the corner of the area, then three minutes from the break let Ljungberg's rocket shot spill out of his hands as he tried to catch the ball. Fortunately for Fulham it went for a corner.
The game continued in the same manner after the break. Bergkamp' sidefoot was batted away by Van der Sar then Pires erred when about to pull the trigger.
Arsenal were playing well and utterly dominant. Their only failing seemed to be a tendency to over-elaborate at the vital moment.
Bergkamp controlled a long pass inside the area with a typically sure first-touch but Van der Sar saved with his leg.
But with the crowed starting to get anxious and Arsenal continuing to pour forward, Fulham were trying their luck on the break. Steed Malbranque went forward on one such raid and fed Volz, of all people, galloping up from right back. He nearly stung his employers with a rising shot that went narrowly over the bar.
Malbranque himself nearly stole the lead himself a few seconds later when he arrived on time to meet a cross from the right. His header was directed downward with power but it bounced past Jens Lehmann's post.
Arsenal needed a lift so on came Kanu. It seemed to have the desired effect, within minutes Bergkamp rifled a low shot wide and Henry had lifted his effort over the bar.
But time was still ticking away and Fulham still had that ambition. Volz came upfield and was tackled by Cole in the area ? a decent shout for a penalty.
Arsenal continued to believe and Kanu nearly justified that idea but Van der Sar, again, proved equal. However there was always the danger Fulham would snatch something on the break.
It never happened but then neither did an Arsenal goal.
|Pires hurdles Saha's challenge||Cole battles Volz for the ball|
|Edu shields from Inamoto||Henry takes down a long pass|
|Freddie crosses as Davies looks on||Volz puts a tackle in on Cole|
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