It was one of those afternoons that no one, even if he happened to catch a point in the seventh minute stoppage, came home happy.
Everything Arsenal really won from Eddie Nketiah’s poached equalizer was minimal self-esteem, given that a win was imperative if they were to keep any degree of heat in European places. How will that go with Fulham, who were seconds away from a victory that would have given them a new glimmer of light in the race for survival. They surely have too much to do now; the championship looks certain to be their next destination as Arsenal look set for the middle of the table, hopeful that the Europa League will deliver salvation.
Scott Parker’s players went to their knees full-time, heartbroken over the last action of a game for the second week in a row, following the Wolves winner. They had nearly survived an Arsenal barrage after Josh Maja, categorically converting a penalty just before the hour mark, gave them clearance to look up. Alphonse Areola had kept them in mind with a series of remarkable saves and seemed to have stolen the show when, in a singular twist, his counterpart helped break their resistance.
When Mat Ryan sprinted down the pitch as Arsenal filled the box for a final corner, he was tempting to joke that it was his best chance to hit the ball. He hadn’t faced a shot on the target bar from the kick but now, running over Bukayo Saka’s outswinger, he won a header at the near post and threw it through the danger zone. . Dani Ceballos searched the ball towards the goal and Areola, diving to his right, deflected it to his right. Areola’s efforts had been more than enough all afternoon, but this time Nketiah, typically ready to poach, was positioned to break Fulham’s heart.
“The difference today was a decision at the end that I didn’t agree with,” Parker said. Fulham argued that Rob Holding, who was clearly offside, was in Areola’s line of sight when Ceballos shot. A VAR exam, far from the first in the game, seemed to confirm this, but the goal remained, apparently because Holding had not attempted to play the ball. “We have the best goaltender in the division, bar none in terms of surface control,” Parker continued. “If Holding is not there, I suspect he will come and recover.
Arsenal had their own tech-related grievances, as most games do these days. The severity of its application regularly belittles the sport which, unless there is a serious setback, will become insidiously normalized.
Arsenal got off to a good start, Gabriel Martinelli missing a good early opportunity before forcing a one-handed save from Areola, and believed Fulham had been breached when Ceballos met Héctor Bellerín’s cross with an accurate header in the 41st minute . Over a considerable length, VAR’s flawless buffet of lines and angles gave Fulham an escape route: Saka was apparently, the length of a toe, passed Antonee Robinson before delivering Bellerín.
“We deserved to win the game with the chances we created,” said Mikel Arteta. But he has to sing that song every two weeks and that’s why Arsenal will do well to finish higher than ninth now. They only threatened to slip once in the first half, Holding deflecting Maja’s close effort a few inches wide, but made a mistake during a rare foray from Fulham after the break.
Gabriel had interrupted Mario Lemina’s first attempt with a through pass but, as the ball cleared again, it was beaten by the visitors’ midfielder. Down Lemina is gone: It was fair, after another appeal to Stockley Park, to assume he had sought contact, but Craig Pawson’s original decision to grant the penalty stood and Maja remained calm.
Fulham fell back but Areola, saving Nicolas Pépé’s header wonderfully before denying Martinelli and Nketiah as the minutes ticked by, nearly did enough. Saka, who had hit the outside of a post earlier, took a light shot. Nketiah’s first league goal since September came after replacing Lacazette, who left with a hamstring problem that looks worrying given Arsenal’s looming semi-final with Villarreal.
“I can’t tell you if it will be a week, two weeks, three weeks, five weeks,” Arteta said of any Lacazette layoff. It will be an anxious wait to find out, given that their season will now be over if they cannot beat the La Liga side. He has denied being aware of reports that Arsenal are part of a cabal that signed up for a European Super League, although no one could blame him if he had done so out of embarrassment.
For Parker, there was pride through frustration and stubborn hope that even with a visit to Chelsea afterwards, Fulham could still find oxygen. “I’m absolutely gutted but we’re going back,” he said. “This team has shown that we can come to big football clubs and give great performances.” It is unlikely that this will suffice.