Before anyone takes me to task over the title, it’s tongue-in-cheek, ok?
Cesc is our captain, and remains a hugely important player to our side. Nasri has sparkled this season and may well take Cesc’s mantle in the long-term, but that will not happen until Cesc himself departs. Considering our Captain’s intermittent availability this season, I shudder to think where we would be without Nasri’s goals and form. But from there, it is a long way to suggesting we do not need Cesc any longer. If we are to win something this season, Cesc will play a significant part.
Perhaps I should have titled this piece “A view from the summit.” Win, and we most likely go top. Anything less opens the door for Chelsea, or, perhaps more infuriatingly, potentially allows Man United to stay top despite the cancellation of their fixture versus Blackpool at Bloomfield Road. The players certainly seemed to understand what was at stake. They started quickly and within a couple of minutes, a lively Arshavin – fresh from representing his country in their successful World Cup 2018 bid – forced Schwarzer into a good save. We moved the ball briskly and directly with Fulham unable to get hold of it. Nasri had just missed an excellent chance when he opened our account with a sweet goal on 14 minutes. Arshavin picked up a stray Hughes pass, moved the ball into the area, and picked out Nasri, who evaded two sliding challenges before moving the ball to his left foot and blasting into the net between Schwarzer and the post – brilliant goal!
What should have been the cue for us to run riot, however, instead saw us squander some chances – although Arshavin forced Schwarzer into another good save, and our work rate seemed to drop too, as Fulham saw more of the ball. The equalizer came on the half-hour mark and was started when our two centre-backs went for the same ball – Squillaci butted (unintentionally, obviously) Koscielny full in the face, the ball broke for Dempsey, who evaded two challenges (including a feeble one by the still-dazed Koscielny), and sent an angled ball in for Kamara, who finished past Fabianski with authority. From threatening to run riot after the first goal to level terms with a third of the match gone – where have we seen that before? Djourou – who many of us expected to start today – came on for Koscielny, who quite clearly was unable to continue.
Fulham took the game to us for next ten minutes, and while they did not carve any great chances out, we were rattled and looked more likely to concede than score. Shortly before the half, Chamakh wasted two good opportunities from headers – the first he sent over the bar, and the next he sent straight at Schwarzer. In stoppage time, Kamara was sent through one-on-one with Fabianski, but shot too close to our keeper, allowing Fabianski to save. So 1-1 at the interval, with plenty of boos for our supporters present to accompany our players in at the break.
I had hoped we would pick it up in the second half and finally put Fulham away. Unfortunately, we started slowly, with a litany of misplaced passes and sloppy play. Luckily Fulham were no better and no real chances for either side in the first ten or so minutes. Shortly before the hour mark, Arshavin forced Schwarzer into yet another good save, after getting past two Fulham defenders. Shortly after the hour mark, Rosicky made way for Robin, who also took the armband from the former. Then being cleared off the line.
The tension had risen significantly by this point, and it was certainly starting to look as though we were going to miss another opportunity to go top. Theo replaced a below-par Jack, and then cue Samir with one of the best goals I have seen in quite some time. Clichy started the attack in our half, feeding Samir, who passed the ball to Arshavin. He found Robin on the edge of the box, who looked as though he was preparing to shoot. Instead, Robin fed the overlapping Samir, who went through two challenges, rounded Schwarzer, and as the ball looked as though it would run out of play, did a full pivot, turning the ball into his right foot and shooting into the open goal from a difficult angle. I have watched it several times now, and it’s one of those that I don’t think I will tire of watching, it was that good!
A third goal would have been nice, if only to settle the nerves. Today, however, it was either going to be Samir or nobody to score for us. Chamakh was a case in point – just a couple of minutes after Samir’s goal, he was able to get free in the area and shoot narrowly wide. If he could have hit the target, it would almost certainly have been a goal. Fulham continued to plug away, and began to get on top, as they had done in the latter stages of the first half. With two minutes to go, Gera took a pop and sent the ball just a couple of inches wide. That was probably their best chance to equalize, and although they attacked for the rest of regulation and stoppage time, we hung on for the win. Everton’s Jermaine Beckford helped ensure that we would finish today as league leaders, equalizing at Stamford Bridge with four minutes left, and denying Chelsea the win.
After a few wasted bites of the cherry, we finally cashed in and took one of our chances to go top of the league. How long we remain there is up to the players. It is certainly true that there are no prizes for topping the league on December 4th, but just getting to the pinnacle – even if only for a couple of days – is a step in the process of becoming league champions.
In his post-match, Mark Hughes said he thought that Fulham “probably edged it” in terms of chances and pressure – a bit of self-serving nonsense, that. But as Arsene has previously uttered similar rubbish after certain defeats, I will only point it out, not complain.
Hughes is absolutely right when he states Fulham caused us plenty of problems. That they did. Perhaps if we were able to get a couple more goals after Samir’s opener, it would have been different. But even with that said, I do not recall any sides having their way with Fulham. I have not seen much of them this season, but I am pretty sure they do not roll over for anyone. The loss drops then to 17th on table, out of the zone only on goal difference – and it clear to me that they just do not score enough goals. But credit to them for the effort, and the part they played in a tense, exciting match.
An unconvincing performance, to be certain, but a win in the end. We still clearly have some things to work through, but we have two home wins on the trot – both characterized by several missed chances. For whatever reason, I think our players tighten up at home, especially when they concede. Does booing bother them? Perhaps – but that is part of the game. While I choose not to, if other supporters choose to do so, the players need to block that out. It may not even be that. But whatever it is, I think it is evident that our players are very tense at home. That sounds strange considering that I recently lambasted them for an overly casual attitude at home, but I think they need to find a middle ground. The elements that help our players succeed away: purpose, sense of urgency and focus, are not consistently present at home. If we can sort this out, who knows what we can accomplish this season.
Now we have two very big matches coming up.
Midweek, we host Partizan Belgrade in the final group stage Champions League match – it will not do for us to miss so many chances in that match, as we are the only one of the four English sides to not yet secure a place in the CL knockout round. Partizan has lost each of their five CL matches, so let’s take them seriously, make sure they don’t get a point (or more) here and book our place in the next round. Then, on the following Monday, we visit Old Trafford. Man United may be unbeaten, but they look quite vulnerable, and we have played well away from home all season. It won’t be the end of the world if we lost at United, but we owe them and now is as good a time as any to collect. If we can win there, it will do our players – and supporters – confidence no end of good.
Regardless of what happens from here, we can at least wake up this morning to see us sat top of the league. Like all of you, I want so much more – but for right now, I’ll take first in the table with dreams of even better days to follow.
Written by Oliver