Can Arsenal avoid the frustration of a fourth consecutive Premier League game without scoring - and prevent Fulham from recording a first-ever double over them?
Emirates Stadium, Ashburton Grove, London N5
Trials & Tribulations In The Way Of Another Top Four Finish
Five defeats before the end of November and too many draws since have effectively scuppered any hopes Arsenal had of mounting a sustained assault on the Premier League title this season. Although still in the Champions League and FA Cup, their priority now is to overhaul Aston Villa to secure ensure a 13th consecutive top-four finish and 12th successive Champions League campaign.
On Saturday they meet the team who inflicted the first of those five defeats on them: fellow Londoners Fulham, whose 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage on 23 August was the first indication that the Gunners might endure an inconsistent season this time around.
Last season, of course, Arsene Wenger's side had set the pace in the Premier League, and looked on course for a fourth title under the Frenchman until that fateful day at Birmingham a year ago last weekend when Eduardo's leg was shattered and with it Arsenal's confidence and momentum. This season, the cumulative impact of the departures of Mathieu Flamini, Lassana Diarra, Gilberto Silva and Aliaksandr Hleb have been compounded by the long-term absences through injury of Eduardo, Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott, and the consequence has been a somewhat ragged set of results.
Particularly frustrating for Arsenal fans has been the fact that of the teams above them in the League table, only Villa have beaten them, yet they have tumbled to lower-placed teams. Their other defeats, apart from the loss at Fulham, were by Hull City, Stoke City and Manchester City. But nine draws have also undermined their challenge.
On the positive side, the Gunners haven't lost in the League since 22 November at Eastlands, and are thus unbeaten in 12. Their last defeat in any game was on 10 December, against FC Porto in the Champions League - after they'd already secured progress from the group stage - so they are seeking to extend an unbeaten run to 15 matches in all competitions this weekend, and do so on the back of an impressive performance against Roma in the first leg of their round of 16 Champions League tie on Tuesday.
Searching For Goals
That 1-0 win did not reflect their dominance of the match - something of a recurring theme for Wenger's team this season. Indeed, while the Gunners look reasonably well-placed for the second leg in Rome, Wenger admitted that a first-half penalty from Robin van Persie was scant reward from a match in which Arsenal were the better team by a distance over the 90 minutes. Nicklas Bendtner fired over from eight yards, and Emmanuel Eboue put his shot inches wide after doing the hard work. The manager praised his players for the win, but rued their failure to score more goals.
"That is the regret we have tonight," reflected Wenger. "I'm happy with our performance but there was room to score more goals - we know we can create chances. One of the positives is we didn't concede a goal."
He added that, having failed to find the net in their last three Premier League games, Arsenal had enjoyed more space in attack on Tuesday against the Serie A side, but lacked some spontaneity in the final third. Ironically, since November Arsenal's play has become almost the polar opposite of what it was in the first few months of the season.
In their first 20 matches in all competitions, the Gunners scored 50 goals and conceded 16; in their subsequent 21 games they have netted only 22 times, and let in 17. Five of those 17 were leaked in the first two games of the sequence, meaning Arsenal's defence has been breached only 12 times in their last 19 games. In fact they have kept clean sheets in their last five. The cost of greater defensive resilience has clearly been a loss of creativity, which also reflects in part the absence of their most creative players through injury. The wish to remedy this explains the record signing of Andrey Arshavin - and the burden of expectation will now rest on his slight shoulders following a promising 60-minute debut against Sunderland last weekend.
The Right Man In Charge...
If Fulham's impatience in sacking manager Chris Coleman towards the end of the 2006-07 season was compounded by their appointment of Lawrie Sanchez, whose reign seemed to many like a backward step for the club, they have redeemed themselves by bringing in Roy Hodgson after dispensing with Sanchez. Having saved them from relegation last season with some thrilling brinkmanship, Hodgson has set about fashioning his own squad, and the team's results reflect a steady improvement.
As well as beating the Gunners in August, Fulham have held Chelsea, Liverpool and Aston Villa to draws, and recorded victories over Bolton, Wigan, Newcastle, Tottenham, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion. They are currently eighth in the table, with 14 more points than they'd gleaned at the same stage last season, and their current tally of 33 points after 25 games is their best return for five years.
At the same time, the Cottagers have made steady progress in the FA Cup this year, and following their midweek victory over Swansea City in a fifth round replay, when they came from behind to win 2-1, they can now prepare for a glamorous quarter-final at home to Manchester United next weekend.
Hodgson said after the Swansea win, "I thought we showed incredible energy just one day after playing a tough Premier League tie against West Brom [which they won 2-0] and I can't praise the team enough for the way they prepared for this game and the way they've gone about their business from the very first minute. They also showed great character to come back from 1-0 down, albeit it was against the run of play. There were a lot of goal chances and they were mainly at one end of the field. It was a very fast, very intensive game and I have to praise Swansea who did very well to live with us. You are always nervous when you go one goal down because you need to score two goals and you know how difficult two goals are to come by at any level of competition."
...But Problems Persist Away From The Cottage
However, apart from a tendency - like their hosts this weekend - to draw too many League matches (nine so far, the same as Arsenal), the Achilles heel in this Fulham side is travel sickness: they are still looking for their first away win of the season.
Creditable points at Anfield and Villa Park cannot disguise the fact that statistically they are the third weakest away team in the Premier League this season. Nor is it a new problem: Fulham have won only 19 of 146 away games in Premier League history, and just three of their last 49. Moreover, this season they have managed to score only three league goals on the road.
They have, too, never beaten Arsenal on the Gunners' home turf. As well as trying to end Arsenal's unbeaten home record against them in all competitions, Fulham are also seeking to prevent a fifth successive defeat at Highbury/Emirates.
24 Feb (Champions League) v Roma (H) WON 1-0
21 Feb (Premier League) v Sunderland (H) DREW 0-0
16 Feb (FA Cup) v Cardiff (H) WON 4-0
08 Feb (Premier League) v Tottenham (A) DREW 0-0
31 Jan (Premier League) v West Ham (H) DREW 0-0
24 Feb (FA Cup) v Swansea (H) WON 2-1
22 Feb (Premier League) v West Brom (H) WON 2-0
18 Feb (Premier League) v Man Utd (A) LOST 0-3
14 Feb (FA Cup) v Swansea (A) DREW 1-1
07 Feb (Premier League) v Wigan (A) DREW 0-0
French midfielder Abou Diaby should be available despite suffering a calf injury against Roma, which Wenger feels may have occurred because he rushed him back a little too soon for the Champions League contest.
Wenger reported that the rest of the team that faced Roma came through unscathed, apart from William Gallas, who took a kick on his ankle but should still be fit to face Fulham.
However, none of the other injured players is expected to be ready for Saturday. Cesc Fabregas (knee), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon), Mikael Silvestre (calf), Eduardo and Emmanuel Adebayor (both hamstring) are all therefore expected to miss this game. But Andrey Arshavin should start his second game for the Gunners, though he could be deployed on the wing if the Nicklas
Bendtner/Robin van Persie partnership continues in attack.
Squad: Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Arshavin, Denilson, Diaby, Nasri, van Persie, Bendtner, Fabianski, Eboue, Djourou, Gibbs, Song, Ramsey, Vela.
Last Starting XI (v Roma): Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Eboue (Ramsey 82), Denilson, Diaby (Song Billong 62), Nasri, Van Persie, Bendtner (Vela 67).
Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Djourou, Gibbs, Merida.
Possible Starting XI: Almunia, Sagna, Gallas, Toure, Clichy, Nasri, Denilson, Diaby, Arshavin, Bendtner, Van Persie.
John Pantsil is suspended for this match, and Frederik Stoor could replace him at right-back. There was a chance that Fulham might also be without top scorer Andy Johnson, though the news on the striker is now positive. “Andy got a knock in training, but we still thought he would be fine for the game on Tuesday,” said manager Roy Hodgson after the FA Cup win over Swansea. “But unfortunately he didn’t respond to treatment, and we did not want to rush him back. He has missed a couple of days training, but hopefully he will be okay for Saturday.”
Otherwise Hodgson has a fully fit squad to choose from.
Squad: Schwarzer, Hughes, Konchesky, Hangeland, Johnson, Zamora, Nevland, Gera, Murphy, Kamara, Gray, Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Dempsey, Davies, Brown, Smalling, Kallio, Barnes, Dacourt.
Last Starting XI (v Swansea): Schwarzer, Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Davies, Dacourt (Murphy 59), Etuhu, Dempsey (Kamara 90), Nevland (Gera 60), Zamora.
Possible Starting XI: Schwarzer, Stoor, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Davies, Murphy, Etuhu, Dempsey, Johnson, Zamora.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Despite an apparent fall-out with fellow central defender William Gallas that prompted Kolo Toure to request a transfer earlier in the season, the heart of the Arsenal rearguard appears to have gelled in more ways than one in recent weeks. Toure now insists that he and Gallas have resolved their differences, and the pair look to have forged an understanding on the pitch as well. A run of clean sheets can only have helped, and Fulham, with a poor scoring record away from home, will have their work cut out to beat these two.
Meanwhile, Denilson and Alexandre Song have quietly been earning plaudits for their central midfield exploits, especially since Cesc Fabregas has been out, and this weekend the pair (though Song may miss out to Diaby) should be complemented by the more creative talents of Andrey Arshavin, with goalkeeper Manuel Almunia telling the club's official website that the Russian playmaker, "is clever and looks for that quick, early shot to surprise teams. I think he will create a mess in the defence of many teams because he is so tricky. I am sure he will be a big player for us and help us for the rest of the games in which he plays this season."
Brede Hangeland scored the goal for Fulham that beat Arsenal in August, and indeed the Norwegian has since been linked with a possible move to the Emirates - at least by the media - presumably because he has the height perceived to be missing from the Gunners' defence. Hangeland rattled the crossbar for the Cottagers for the second time in a week against Swansea on Tuesday. He believes Fulham can compete against the best, home and away, and told the club's official website: "We're well aware of how tough it will be at the Emirates and we have to produce a performance like we have in our last two games if we want to get points. I think we're full of confidence at the moment so we'll try and go there and get something.
"We're really happy with our home form but looking at that we should do better away from home. Maybe it's to do with confidence but sooner or later we'll do well away from home and get a win. They're a top side and we expect a very tough game but we're confident and we know if we play well we can get points. We've been to Anfield, Villa Park and places like that and got points so I think it's possible on Saturday but we have to play well."
In attack, Bobby Zamora will be making his 300th career league appearance (Bristol Rovers, Brighton, Tottenham, West Ham and Fulham), and looking to build on his recent return to goal-scoring form. After Clint Dempsey had inspired Fulham's comeback against Swansea by heading home Simon Davies' 77th minute corner on Tuesday, Zamora completed the fight-back by heading in his fourth goal of the season from another Davies cross.
Arsenal have lost further ground in the Premier League after four successive draws, the last three of them goalless. They haven't drawn five in a row since February 1994, and the last time they recorded four consecutive Premier League nil-nils was in October 1993, though they also went four without scoring in September 1994, in George Graham's last term as manager. A probable capacity crowd at the Emirates will be impatient to see a red-shirted player put the ball in the net with the Gunners having scored just five goals in their last six League matches. Fulham will be looking to complete a double over their London rivals - and secure their first away win of the season. They have lost 20 out of 22 league and cup visits to Arsenal over the years. But both clubs have drawn nine league games this season, and kept 10 clean sheets. Arsenal have scored the most goals in the last 10 minutes (12); Fulham the least (two). Both teams are in decent runs, but Arsenal's performance against Roma suggested that their accustomed passing game is getting back on track, and they cannot afford to drop more points. They are expected to win this game, and they should do so.
Arsenal 2-0 Fulham
Graham Lister, Goal.com