Gunners fail to convince at the Cottage
Questioning the commitment of Cesc Fabregas to the Arsenal cause has become something of a popular pastime during the opening few weeks of this Premier League season.
Unfortunate defeats in Arsenal's two Premier League visits to Manchester this season have done little to banish the notion that Fabregas is becoming a little disillusioned with life in a team that has long threatened so much without delivering the ultimate prizes, so this was a day for the Gunners talisman to answer his critics.
On a warm afternoon that should have made Fabregas feel at home, the midfielder sporting the No.4 shirt had the perfect chance to fire his season into life as this game was always likely to be played with the sort of flow that suits Arsenal. All too often, Fabregas and his pals are denied the space to play the football neutral observers enjoy to watch, yet Fulham manager Roy Hodgson is not the type to serve up the sort of unpleasant diet.
Even though trips to Craven Cottage have proved to be troublesome for Arsenal down the years, you would have expected Fabregas to be in his element and yet his first-half showing was a long way below the standard he has set himself down the years. Trying to dictate play in the heart of the battle, he earned his first chance of the game as the ball found its way to him on the edge of the box, only to blast over when he should have hit the target.
Fabregas' most significant contribution of the opening 45 minutes came as he fed a quick pass to Andrey Arshavin inside the box, but the Russian wasted Arsenal's best chance of the first half and you couldn't help but feel Fabregas was below par.
As usual, the Arsenal skipper was handed set-play duties, though the little man was not providing the sort of quality service we have come to expect from him and he also gave the ball away on a curiously consistent basis. His frustration became clear as he began to admonish himself with increasing regularity.
Indeed, Arsenal stand-in keeper Vito Mannone was the busier of the two keepers in a free-flowing first half and Arsenal boss Wenger was clearly not enjoying what he was seeing as he had moved striker Robin van Persie into a wide role before the break.
Still, when you have a man of Fabregas' genius lurking in your ranks, there is always a chance that he will click into gear and produce the sort of magic his opponents simply cannot live with. In this game, that moment arrived after 51 minutes.
The danger to Fulham seemed minimal as Fabregas collected the ball in the midfield and assessed his options in a fraction of a second. He then picked out a run from Robin van Persie with a perfectly floated pass, with the quality of his delivery, when it mattered most, proving to be of the highest order.
Van Persie didn't need to break his stride as the Fabregas chip dropped perfectly at his feet, allowing the Dutchman to produce an equally clinical finish. The aggressive and exuberant celebrations from the Arsenal skipper confirmed his exasperation had been extinguished in an instant. It proved to be a goal that secured all three points.
Fulham had a right to argue they deserved more from this game and if striker Bobby Zamora made the most of his chances, they could have claimed a point. "I felt we deserved to get something from the game and we can take a lot of positives from a good performance," was the view of Fulham boss Hodgson.
"We came up against an inspired keeper and he managed to give Arsenal the victory. They had that little bit of quality in decisive area of the team and that proved to be the crucial in the final analysis."
The win was welcome for Arsenal, but they were a long way from their flowing best and one blatant negative had to be the inept contribution of Arshavin. He may be an ESPN Fantasy Football favourite, but the Russian didn't look as if he has the stomach for the fight at Craven Cottage and it was no surprise when Wenger put him out of his misery after 68 minutes.
"I did not feel we produced enough decisive football in the first half, but we showed more of a threat after the break. We have a spirit in this side that makes me feel positive for this season. I am convinced we will do well if we stay loyal to our principles."
So Arsenal managed to extract an ounce of sparkle from Fabregas and Van Persie to grind out a win, yet both the Arsenal captain and his boss will know this kind of display is unlikely to be enough to take them into the winners circle over the course of a long, hard season.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Vito Mannone - Arsenal's youthful stand-in keeper has been criticised for his opening few performances between the sticks at senior level, but the Italian made some crucial saves to keep a valuable clean sheet. He was hugged by all his team-mates at the end.
FABREGAS VERDICT: The truly great players may not always be at their best for 90 minutes, but they still manage to come up with a decisive contribution. Those who are questioning Fabregas' long-term commitment to the Arsenal cause should wait before passing a decisive judgement.
ARSENAL UP CLOSE: Wenger will have been concerned by his side's lack of drive for large chunks of this game. He cut a frustrated figure as he patrolled the touchline and will have been relieved to escape with a slightly fortunate victory.
FULHAM UP CLOSE: Hodgson faces a major challenge juggling the Europa League and domestic commitments this season and Fulham may struggle in the attacking third, with Bobby Zamora lacking a proven Premier League record. They look like a mid-table side, which would still be a fine achievement given their resources.