In Pictures: Fulham 0 Arsenal 1
Published 28/09/2009 | 00:00
One by one the Arsenal players queued up to congratulate Vito Mannone, to shake the hand of the man who had ensured a victory that Arsène Wenger's side scarcely deserved.
And well they might, for Mannone was outstanding, the over-riding reason why Arsenal were able to come away from Craven Cottage with the points despite producing what was possibly their worst performance of the season so far.
The term "winning ugly" is not normally associated with Arsenal but against Fulham they did just that. Wenger's side were way below their best but still managed to pinch the win, against a team that believed throughout that they could repeat their 1-0 victory of last season.
And for that they had to thank Mannone, the third-choice goalkeeper who came close to being dropped in favour of the club's No 4 gloveman, Wojciech Szczesny, before this match. The 21-year-old made four excellent saves to deny Fulham, the best being a flying reflex stop to save Bobby Zamora's header.
"I would give him 10 out of 10 as he did everything right," Wenger said. "He didn't make a wrong decision. He kept us in the game in some unbelievable situations. Sometimes a goalkeeper looks unbeatable and he looked like that. He is a quiet boy with an outstanding physique and fantastic reflexes, and he is very passionate about the game."
Mannone's masterclass began quietly. The Italian was called into action in the fifth minute with a simple save from Andrew Johnson, a mere foretaste of the heroics to come. He then made a fine double save to repel Johnson's header and Clint Dempsey's volley before a brilliant stop to keep out a shot by Zoltan Gera just before the break. Johnson was a constant threat for Fulham, who lost Damien Duff to a calf injury in the ninth minute but still kept Arsenal on the back foot.
Wenger's stuttering side were fortunate to still be on level terms at the interval, and it appeared that a third successive away defeat was on the cards, to follow recent losses at Manchester United and Manchester City. But Arsenal managed to increase the tempo in the second half and in the 52nd minute they stopped Fulham in their tracks. Paul Konchesky, the home side's left-back, needlessly gave away possession on the halfway line and Arsenal pounced without mercy.
The ball was swiftly played to Fabregas, who glanced up before delivering the ball into the path of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman took one touch and rolled the ball along the turf into the far corner of the goal.
Tails up, Arsenal almost doubled their lead three minutes later, but this time the angle for Nicklas Bendtner was far tighter and Mark Schwarzer was able to save. Fulham, however, responded to the challenge with a fine move that saw Zamora cross for Johnson, but the former England striker's header was saved well by Mannone.
The Italian's reaction block to deny Zamora in the 80th minute was the pick of the bunch. The former Tottenham striker rose to meet Konchesky's free-kick but Mannone's reactions were too sharp and he palmed Zamora's header to safety.
The Fulham manager Roy Hodgson drew little consolation from the injustice of his side's defeat. "The fact that their goalkeeper was man of the match is only balm for the wound, and the wound is the main problem," Hodgson said. "You can say they were lucky but we still lost. I don't think we can play better than that.
"It's always seconds in football, an inspired moment, a chance taken, as opposed to a chance missed. But it was a good performance over the 95 minutes. I can't fault the effort or quality of our play but they showed their quality in the penalty box can be a decisive factor when it's a close game."
Wenger said his side will take heart from this victory, without hitting the heights their football is capable of. "I am very optimistic about this team," he said. "People expect us to play well and dominate the game. I believe we showed great attitude and spirit. Without that we would not have been able to take three points. This team shows that it can go from strength to strength."
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Man of the match: Mannone