French midfielder Samir Nasri's individual brilliance yielded Arsenal a hard-fought win over Fulham in the fiercely contested London derby.
Nasri, arguably the Player of the Season, exhibited all the weapons in his arsenal with another two goals to his name. His intelligence, footwork, dribbling skills, finishing, composure and ambidexterity all were on show when he majestically dug the grave for Mark Hughes's men almost singlehandedly.
Arsenal took the lead when Nasri got to the end of a perfect ball from Andrei Arshavin and evaded two challenges before smashing the ball into the back of the net with his weak foot. Nasri came up with the goods when Arsenal needed it the most. His second goal would certainly count as one of the best goals of the season.
Robin Van Persie's class and silky touch played Nasri in, and the Frenchman dribbled past defenders as if they weren't there, bullying the goalkeeper with his quick feet before slotting home the ball after turning from an acute angle.
Arsenal made hard work of the tie which they should have won with relative comfort. Again this is Arsenal, and you can't expect them to do it the easy way. Arsenal dominated the game during the opening quarter but failed to convert possession into goals. For all the chances created and possession they had during the opening quarter, Arsenal only scored once when they should have at least three or four times.
Against the run of play, Diomansy Kamara took advantage of a defensive lapse, when Arsenal's struggling centre-half pair, Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny, collided against each other to level the game.
Following the collision, Koscielny had to be taken off and replaced by Johan Djourou. Arsenal looked increasingly vulnerable at the back, and Kamara got another chance—one-on-one with Lukas Fabianski—to give Fulham the lead. However, Fabianski pulled off a brilliant save to deny Fulham a lead which they never deserved.
In the second half Fulham dominated for a while, and Mark Schwarzer did very well to deny Arshavin from close range. Arsenal fans cut a frustrated figure watching their team make a mess of a game which they should have won in the first half itself.
Van Persie's introduction made the difference in the end. He took over the captain's armband from Tomas Rosicky and led from the front. Also, Theo Walcott replaced Jack Wilshere to inject more pace into the game. Wenger tinkered with the formation a bit and allowed Nasri to play through the middle with Walcott on the right and Van Persie just behind the striker in a more traditional 4-4-2 setup. Immediately Nasri scored a beauty of a goal to give Arsenal the lead, a goal worthy of winning any game.
Despite Fulham's onslaught later on, Arsenal managed to keep Mark Hughes's side at bay in the dying minutes of a nerve-wracking finish to an amazing derby.
•Wenger's defensive tactics were poor to say the least. Instead of settling down comfortably, Arsenal maintained a very high line of defence, which is suicidal with below-par centre-backs. The wingbacks were playing more like wingers and that is not advisable with defenders of the quality of Squillaci manning the heart of the defence. Squillaci in particular is awful and is difficult to partner with. Koscielny sniffs the threat early and attacks the ball, so the duty of Squillaci is to follow the main striker. In the build up to the Fulham goal, the veteran French defender not only eliminated Koscielny from the game but also failed to keep an eye on Kamara, thereby gifting Fulham a goal.
•Alex Song seems to forget his defensive duties far too often. As a defensive midfielder, he should mark the opposite playmaker closely. Clint Dempsey and Danny Murphy were pulling the strings for Fulham, and it was Dempsey's brilliant through ball that opened the gates for Kamara to score. Dempsey had all the time in the world to pick his pass, and you can't afford to give that much time to a player of the top draw like Dempsey. It was Song's responsibility to keep the American under check, but the Cameroonian was nowhere in the vicinity of Dempsey throughout the game.
•Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy played exceptionally well. They dictated the play through the channels for the whole 90 minutes and deserve whatever credit comes their way.
•Marouane Chamakh time and time again disappoints with his inability to shoot at goal when he has the opportunity to do so. As a striker you must be greedy enough to take the shot whenever a chance comes your way, but here is a striker who waits for his teammates when he could easily test the keeper from range. With a better striker Arsenal could have scored more. Chamakh's profligacy can't be afforded against top teams, so it's time for Van Persie to step in and take up the central role in a crucial month which could decide Arsenal's season.
•Johan Djourou is better than both Squillaci and Koscielny and should start games ahead of the struggling duo. Djourou stood out in the defence when Fulham bombarded Arsenal's box later on in the game.
•No matter whether Wenger has confidence in his defenders or not, Arsenal need a new centre back in the winter transfer window at any cost, and by that I don't mean another Squillaci.
•Fulham were hapless defensively, and a more clinical team would've put five or six past the Cottagers. Surprisingly, even Brede Hangeland has been struggling to get to terms with Mark Hughes's style. If you take Dempsey and Murphy out, Fulham are going down, and down means down to the Championship.
Finally, nothing could aptly define Nasri's performance today. Slowly but steadily he's blossoming into one of the best attacking midfielders of the League. If he keeps playing like this, the Premier League and the Player of the Year awards are certainly coming to the Emirates. For the time being, Arsenal are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League. With Chelsea falling apart, Arsenal can rule the league if they beat Manchester United next week; it will take a better performance defensively though.
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