Premier League - Arsenal draw at Fulham
Arsene Wenger’s side came from behind twice with Steve Sidwell and Bobby Zamora on target for the hosts, Robin van Persie and substitute Theo Walcott scoring for the visitors with Walcott’s coming in the 89th minute.
Fulham will be annoyed with Zoltan Gera, who was sent off four minutes after coming on with his team leading 2-1: not only did his 74th-minute dismissal for a rash challenge on Thomas Vermaelen cost them a win, but the additional disciplinary points may well cost them a place in Europe via the Fair Play league.
With Arsenal all but resigned to having to pre-qualify for the Champions League and Fulham comfortable in mid-table, the first half was a bright and breezy affair in keeping with the conditions in West London.
Fulham started with greater intent; Zamora miscontrolling when put clean through - but Arsenal quickly found their rhythm as Samir Nasri headed a brilliant Jack Wilshere cross straight at Mark Schwarzer before the big Australian pulled off an excellent save to deny Kieran Gibbs’s bullet header.
Arsenal’s defensive woes have been highly publicised and they were exposed several times in the first half, particularly with a flaky offside trap that played Fulham players onside on several occasions, most notably when they took a 26th-minute lead.
Clint Dempsey’s diagonal pass wide was excellent but Zamora should have been offside, played on by the uneasy Johan Djourou before finding ex-Arsenal trainee Sidwell, who rolled the finish through Wojciech Szczesny’s legs.
The visitors hit back quickly through, and in a fashion as typical as that which they conceded: a lovely one-touch move saw Abou Diaby release Van Persie, who set up a low rolled finish with a glorious first touch that made it goals in nine straight games for the only Gunners player worth his salt in their poor late-season run.
It was end-to-end stuff and, in front of the Putney stand, Vermaelen made a brilliant last-ditch challenge to stop Danny Murphy rolling the ball over the line after panicky defending and keeping from his team-mates.
The second half was similar in tone but with Fulham always looking the likelier: aside from a smart Schwarzer save from a Samir Nasri free-kick, all the action was at Arsenal’s end as Zamora was denied a flying header from a superb Jonathan Greening cross by Vermaelen’s block.
The Belgian defender, out for much of the season with an Achilles injury, was less impressive though as Fulham took the lead again: the build-up play was great, as smart touches from Andy Johnson and Dempsey allowed Greening to put in another pinpoint cross that this time Zamora was allowed to meet, but Vermaelen lost his man and, earlier, more bungling by the woeful Djourou had allowed the opportunity to arise.
Szczesny was called into action minutes later, denying Zamora at his feet with a brave block as Fulham looked likely to increase their lead.
There was a half-chance for Arsenal as a rare Schwarzer error to spill a Van Persie cross saw Marouane Chamakh react too slowly to finish, but down the other end it was Three Stooges defending as Gibbs, Djourou and Vermaelen were all at sea to afford Simon Davies the opportunity to flick the ball just wide.
Then came Gera’s moment of madness. Out of favour this season after playing a big role in last campaign’s run to the Europa League final, the Hungarian playmaker is expected to leave and may have landed a parting shot to boss Mark Hughes: on for the tiring Zamora, he flew in with a needless, two-footed lunge on Vermaelen - Martin Atkinson was only too ready to brandish a straight red card.
With Fulham’s participation in Europe next year dependent on their admirable disciplinary record - this was their first red card of the season - Gera’s probable last act in a Whites shirt could well deny them another crack at the continent.
As a result the latter stages were all Arsenal: substitute Andrei Arshavin fired a low drive just wide after a mazy dribble, while Vermaelen fluffed his lines as a Nasri cross gave him a free header.
The equaliser finally came as Walcott, who was quiet until this point, netted a trademark goal after cutting inside from the right and drilling a low finish in off the far post.
With three minutes injury time signalled Arsenal - egged on by some angry songs from their fans that demanded the club spend money on top players - sensed blood, throwing men forward and going close to a winner as Arshavin drove a long-range effort just over.
It mattered not for either side in the end - Manchester City won at Bolton to secure third; the clubs below Fulham were unable to narrow the gap on eighth, while 10-man Everton won at home to Chelsea to stay seventh.