Arsenal snatch a point in 97th minute to break Fulham hearts
Eddie Nketiah late goal leaves Scott Parker’s side now six points off safety at the bottom
Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah (centre left) celebrates scoring their side’s first goal of the game during the Premier League draw with Fulham at the Emirates Stadium. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/PA Wire
Arsenal 1 Fulham 1
Fulham were seconds away from a win that would have made survival appear that little bit more realistic and, perhaps, put the wind back in their sails for a great escape. That prospect seems exceedingly remote now and their desolation at full time suggested they knew it. They were leading through Josh Maja’s second-half penalty and, largely thanks to a heroic performance from goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, looked to have repelled an Arsenal barrage as the game entered its seventh minute of stoppage time.
Then Mat Ryan, making his home debut in Arsenal’s goal, advanced upfield for a corner and managed to flick the ball across goal. It was drilled back in by Dani Ceballos and Areola, who would claim unsuccessfully that he had been unsighted by an offside Rob Holding, pushed the shot away. But the substitute Eddie Nketiah was positioned to stab in an equaliser that leaves nobody especially happy: a draw is a near-fatal blow to Arsenal’s remaining hopes of qualifying for European football via the domestic route.
At the end Fulham’s contingent sunk to their knees; at the interval they could feel happy enough with parity given Arsenal, who had emerged with their tails up before losing their way, had just been denied the lead by a toe’s length. Like many that fall foul of VAR, which is deployed on a weekly basis in such a way as to debase an entire sport, there was nothing wrong with Ceballos’s 41st-minute header at first glance. He had been one of three Arsenal players queuing up to convert Héctor Bellerín’s precise cross to the far post, succeeding in doing so with a firm finish across Areola. But events on the ground deferred to the lines and angles at Stockley Park, where Simon Hooper determined Bukayo Saka had been offside when controlling Gabriel Martinelli’s cross and feeding Bellerín. The end of his right boot had, it turned out, extended a fraction beyond that of Antonee Robinson.
The incident followed a lengthy lull but Arsenal, buoyant after Thursday’s resounding victory in Prague, had flown out of the traps earlier on. They should have scored inside two minutes when Alexandre Lacazette, so influential in ensuring their progression to the Europa League semi-finals, showed exceptional vision to loft a pass into Martinelli’s path. Martinelli had to dink the ball over the advancing Areola and found height but not direction, the ball running slightly wide of the keeper’s left post. Had he scored, VAR might have had a tough time discerning whether or not he was offside by a finger’s width.
There would have been no need for a review if, shortly afterwards, Martinelli’s first-time shot from 10 yards had beaten Areola. The chance arose after Emile Smith Rowe had bustled to the byline and, with space at a premium, managed to cut back. Areola was down sharply in a crowded box to save with his left hand and Fulham retained hope of establishing a platform.
Scott Parker had, like Mikel Arteta, made five changes to his starting lineup and opted for speed on the counter. Maja, Ademola Lookman, Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid all have plenty of that and the lineup had a similar look to the one that, five games previously, had earned Fulham a win at Anfield and seemingly a clear path to survival. They stabilised in the period between those misses and Ceballos’s frustration, playing patiently around Arsenal’s press at times, and had a chance of their own midway through the first half. Decordova-Reid’s deflected shot fell kindly for Maja in the box and, via the inside of Holding’s leg, his first-time strike dribbled millimetres wide.
That level of penetration would not be enough to improve their fortunes but, from their first moment of menace after the break, they found an unlikely breakthrough. Arsenal had been banging at the door again, Lacazette fizzing wide and Saka rapping the outside of a post with a cross-shot, but then Mario Lemina led a Fulham charge upfield. Gabriel cut out his attempted through pass for Ola Aina but, given a second bite as the ball ran free, Lemina nipped in ahead of the Arsenal centre-back. Down he went, the contact perhaps anticipated somewhat as the pair collided, and although Craig Pawson initially seemed reluctant to award a penalty, a glance towards his assistant referee solidified his decision. This time VAR found nothing to niggle at after again checking for a tight offside call earlier in the move and, eventually, with Parker barely able to watch from the touchline, Maja beat home debutant Ryan from the spot.
Arteta flung on the cavalry but promptly saw Lacazette limp off in a development that may yet bode ill for their European hopes. One of the substitutes, Nicolas Pépé, wondered how he had not equalised after a point-blank header was brilliantly saved by Areola, with Tosin Adarabioyo completing the clearance.
Fulham almost pulled through, the inspired Areola denying Martinelli and Nketiah. Then came the sting that surely makes their survival task too steep. – Guardian