Arsenal 1 (van Persie 52)
The Arsenal boys had third-choice Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone to thank for the 1-0 win at Fulham – and didn’t they know it? The 21-year-old produced an outstanding goalkeeping performance to ensure that Robin van Persie’s 52nd-minute goal remained decisive and each and every member of the Arsenal team made a point to personally congratulate the Italian for his efforts.
The statistics at the end of the game showed that Mannone made 6 parried saves in all and to my memory at least four of those were quite brilliant; an early double-save from Andy Johnson and Clint Dempsey, a low diving save to deny Zoltan Gera, a terrific effort to scramble away another Johnson header and perhaps the best of the lot, a tremendous reflex stop to his left to keep out Bobby Zamora’s effort.
If it sounds like Mannone was under intense pressure throughout this match, it’s because he was. This was – in truth – a poor Arsenal performance and although we got the only goal of the game when Cesc Fabregas floated a lovely pass to van Persie and he finished clinically, Fulham were undoubtedly unlucky to finish up without a point. But as it was, this is the sort of game that we have failed to take three points from all too often in the past and although the likes of Fabregas, Abou Diaby and Andrey Arshavin never really got going, the boys should be delighted with their ability to grind out the win without playing well.
Although we didn’t play well I thought the starting team selected by the manager was the correct one. Mannone played behind the usual back four of Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Thomas Vermaelen and Gael Clichy while a midfield triangle of Alex Song, Fabregas and Diaby provided support for Nicklas Bendtner, van Persie and Arshavin up top. A lot of people were expecting the return of Arshavin to boost the creativity of the squad but the truth was he looked very flat after returning from almost a month out and was out-shined by both van Persie in the middle and the hard-working Bendtner on the right.
The first half saw us create only one real opportunity when a hideous bobble denied Arshavin the simplest of finishes after terrific interplay by Fabregas and van Persie. Fulham meanwhile forced three strong saves out of Mannone and arguably went into the break as the better side.
Just after half-time our boys made Fulham pay for their inability to make their pressure count on the scoreboard. Van Persie scored the sort of goal that Thierry Henry made famous, controlling Fabregas’ superb pass and sliding home with his right foot. The relief was there for all to see as Bendtner, van Persie and Fabregas celebrated with intensity and the score could have been 2-0 shortly after had it not been for an excellent save by Mark Schwarzer to deny Bendtner’s stinging shot.
From that point on, though, it was largely Fulham’s game. Mannone was forced into several more saves and Sagna even deflected a Dempsey effort off the post before Wenger saw fit to make a couple of changes to the team. Arshavin was replaced by Tomas Rosicky – who immediately added more pep to our passing – while Emmanuel Eboue subbed on for van Persie in a move that saw Bendtner moved into the middle.
The changes failed to significantly turn things around however, and while Eboue and Bendtner both had chances to put the game away it was Fulham who went closest to scoring. But just when they thought they would score through Zamora, there was Mannone again to make the save and ensure Arsenal went home with all three points.
I’ve already said enough about him to fill up a 500-page book but – how good was Mannone? The manager called his performance ’10 out of 10′ and although I wouldn’t go that far (some parried shots really could have been knocked a little further away from danger) it was perhaps the best performance by an Arsenal goalkeeper since Jens Lehmann’s heroics against Real Madrid at Highbury in 2006. He really kept us in the game and although I am firmly of the opinion that Manuel Almunia should return once he is fit again after his chest infection Mannone’s performance will have sent a clear reminder that if he continues to perform abjectly then we have a very able deputy waiting to take his spot.
Chelsea’s suprising loss to Wigan means that we are now just six points off the top of the table with a game in hand. The last two games have seen two clean sheets and the win over Fulham will have given the players the belief that they can take three points from games even when they are not playing well.
All-in-all this was a good weekend for Arsenal and with three home games coming up next against Olympiacos in the Champions League and Blackburn and Birmingham in the Premier League and Chelsea having to playing Liverpool there is every chance that our team will be up in the top two within a couple of week’s time.
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