2007-08-13

Arsenal open season with a tough victory over Fulham

Just ten minutes from the kickoff, and the supporters were already screaming for a little less conversation, a little more action. In the end, Arsenal got a thrilling comeback victory over Fulham, and the fans left the Emirates Stadium with the sense of a team that didn't change from the last season.

Indeed, they stared down the barrel at a deflating defeat. Jens Lehmann gifted Fulham a first-minute goal with a comical howler, and there were less than 10 minutes remaining before a deserved equaliser arrived from a controversial penalty. The bonus of Alexander Hleb's winner came with just 12 seconds remaining. No wonder there are reports of Arsene Wenger feeling the strain.

The Arsenal coach talked of the win as "the kind of result that can change a season for a squad". His players gathered in a public post-match huddle to embrace the significance of this win. They fell behind in half of last season's home matches, but lost only one.

A setback in the opening game of the new campaign would have sorely tested their resilience and raised all kinds of uncomfortable questions about the departures of the most important star, Thierry Henry, and David Dein.

Keeper Lehmann tried to be too clever by half when Gael Clichy offered him a settling touch in the opening minute. He screwed an attempted return pass against his own knee, and the ball bounced invitingly to David Healy, who couldn't miss. and Fulham lost their goalkeeper, Antti Niemi, to a pre-match wrist injury. The local goalkeeper's embarrassment was compounded as Niemi's deputy, Tony Warner, emerged as the man of the match.

We must consider that Eduardo da Silva and Emmanuel Adebayor are both injured, and manager Wenger deployed Robin van Persie at the point of a fluid attack which searched vainly for its due rewards until Fulham tired in the closing stages.

Maybe that's why Fulham carved out their own opportunities to double the lead in the second part: Steven Davis volleyed straight at Lehmann, Carlos Bocanegra took a fresh-air shot at a close-range chance, then Clint Dempsey jabbed wide after being put clear. However, the Gunners survived their sleepy moments in defence to push home their overall superiority, and spare Lehmann's blushes.

Finally, there was a last throw of the dice feeling about the bold run from Kolo Toure that forced the equalising penalty. He beat two men in stirring fashion before being checked on the edge of the box by Bocanegra. Referee Phil Dowd pointed to the spot despite the furious Fulham protests. Toure had looked poised to score, Van Persie duly did, crashing the penalty into the roof of the net.

The fans will have a lot to think about, but they also know there is still hope, with some new players that are proving to be good enough to change Arsenal's destiny this season.

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