Two goals in five minutes from Santi Cazorla ensured Arsenal kept their place at the top of the Premier League table, as they beat a resilient Fulham side 2-0 on Saturday.
Fans at the Emirates Stadium had to wait until shortly after half-time for their side to find any real attacking rhythm and express their superiority against a side they were expected to beat comfortably, but Cazorla eventually provided two such moments of class around the hour mark to put the Cottagers to the sword.
The Spaniard finished off a slick, smart team-passing move to break the deadlock and then found the target from range to secure the points, as Arsenal’s title challenge rolled on despite the side failing to ever reach top gear.
Afterwards, Arsene Wenger told Sky Sports:
In the second-half we got up a gear and it was just a question of time. Santi Cazorla got the two goals today to make everybody happy.
He has missed a big part of the season and it took him a while to get back to his best, but since mid December we have seen him completely free again and he's a different player.
Fulham, meanwhile, drop back into the relegation zone as a consequence of results elsewhere.
If Arsenal are the title contenders this season and Fulham can only hope to avoid relegation, then the presumed gap in quality between the two sides was certainly not in evidence during the first half at the Emirates Stadium.
Perhaps anticipating a somewhat straightforward afternoon against a team that was last seen—in the league, at least—losing 4-1 at home to fellow strugglers Sunderland, Arsenal looked sluggish on the ball and were lacking in invention on the attack for large parts of the opening stanza.
Fulham, in contrast, seemed to put the memory of that Sunderland defeat to the back of their collective mind—with the midweek FA Cup hammering of Norwich perhaps giving them some inspiration.
They were also helped by the performance of Dimitar Berbatov, who has been linked with Arsenal in recent weeks and certainly demonstrated his best assets in a diligent performance. Three clever moves from the Bulgarian nearly resulted in an opener for the visitors, with Steve Sidwell forcing a strong save from Wojciech Szczesny from range moments before Alex Kacaniklic slightly miscontrolled two astute Berbatov through balls to give Szczesny just enough opportunity to come in and gather the ball.
Chastened by those near misses, and with the crowd demanding more, Arsenal began to improve, with Mesut Ozil dropping deeper and finding himself increasingly influential. Nevertheless, an incisive final pass proved elusive, with the Gunners’ best chance, Bacary Sagna’s low drive that was parried away by Maarten Stekelenburg, coming after Cazorla’s free-kick had been rejected by the wall.
Arsenal’s lone striker, Olivier Giroud, had barely had a sniff of a chance in the first half—his follow-up to Sagna’s shot, which clattered into Stekelenburg’s face, was quickly ruled out for offside—but it was his team-mate Serge Gnabry who continued to look like the home side’s most threatening player.
After Fulham’s young central defender had seen his close-range header blocked at the start of the second half, Gnabry helped kick his side into gear with a curling effort that forced a good sprawling save from Stekelenburg.
That seemed to finally bring Arsenal to life, and soon enough, they had the breakthrough. Having been denied by a Burn block just moments earlier, it was Cazorla who got the goal, and in impressive fashion too.
It was a brilliant team-passing move started by the Spaniard, who fired the ball into Giroud before looping in behind him, timing his run perfectly as Giroud laid the ball off to Wilshere and the midfielder cut the pass back into his path for him to fire a sharp effort to Stekelenburg’s left.
Five minutes later, it was 2-0, with the same tyro responsible. This time, it was a strike from range, with Cazorla taking a touch to control the ball after Nacho Monreal’s cross had been headed away before driving a low left-footed shot perfectly into the far corner.
Shortly after that flurry, Wenger decided to make changes, with Gnabry withdrawn (to rousing applause) for Lukas Podolski. The German nearly replicated Cazorla’s brace in the five minutes after he came on, forcing Stekelenburg into one smart save before unleashing a rasping drive from 25 yards that the goalkeeper barely managed to flick onto his near post.
Rene Meulensteen, too, tried to change things, as Darren Bent came on for a late cameo, beating Szczesny to Sidwell’s chipped ball in the final minute before suffering the ignominy of injuring himself as he missed the subsequent open goal.
Pajtim Kasami then nearly scored a free-kick after Szczesny almost let it through his legs, but in truth, the away side lacked the same threat they occasionally showed in the first half and were perhaps only excused from a more emphatic defeat in the closing stages by some inattentive Arsenal passing.
Still top of the table, Wenger added:
The pressure is there but it is a positive one. I believe it is important to keep focused on way we want to play and our solidarity in the side which is exceptional and that will get us the points.
Man City is a good team as well so that makes the race even more interesting.
There are five or six teams who will fight for the Championship. From our side we just need to be consistent.
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Arsenal face Coventry at home in the FA Cup in their next engagement before travelling to meet Southampton four days later.
Fulham travel to face Sheffield United in their own cup encounter before they embark on a trip to Wales to face Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium.