In Sidwell’s case, the fact that he went into Arteta rather than from the same direction made his tackle look Shawcrossian. His cleats caught Arteta squarely on the ankle just after the Spaniard planted his foot—a split-second earlier would have been enough to see something truly ugly. As it went, he got none of the ball and all of the ankle, and he had the nerve to act like he had been injured. I know that footballers are known for histrionics, but that was a bit much, akin to a boxer holding his hand after a punch. At a time when we already had about 90% possession, his sending off seemed to spell Fulham’s doom. Instead, it was very nearly Berbatov who put Fulham ahead shortly after but for a decent save from Szczęsny. More on Szczęsny in moment.
Indeed, it seemed like Fulham responded to the red with a jolt of adrenaline and desperation, playing with more urgency and threatening more than they had at full strength. I was throwing my hands up in frustration—it seemed 10-man Fulham had taken as many shots as us, and they certainly had more corners—and Walcott has setting up to waste yet another spot-kick from outside the box. Instead, he lofted a curling cross to the back-post that Koscielny headed back across the goal, and Mertesacker nodded it home. He may have even “stolen” a goal from Kos as it might have gone in on its own, not that he seemed to mind.
Aside from that cross, Walcott was largely ineffectual and I was more than happy to see make way for Podolski in the 70th minute. It’s a harsh call to make, but you’d expect him to have made more of a mark on the game, especially against a short-handed side. Say what you will about Cazorla’s influence on our attack on the left; Arteta, playing from the right, had 100 touches by the time Walcott came off, so there were plenty of opportunities to move up the right flank as well.
More troublingly, Szczęsny did terribly on a set-piece from just outside the 18 after a rash tackle from Ramsey, coughing up a rebound that led to a goal cancelled by an offsides call. He moved nicely to make the save, but offering up a deflection at a time when he has to know other attackers are crashing in was sloppy keeping. I’ll always be first in line to defend a keeper, but this one makes it hard for me to do so with much conviction. The play left me hoping that Fabianski’s rib heals sooner rather than later, I’ll say that much.
At the other end of the pitch, my MOTM prediction backfired for Olivier Giroud. He very nearly scored in the 34th minute, hitting a tightly angled shot that glanced off the far post. He put it in just about the only spot it could be in order to get past the keeper; there just wasn’t enough space left to put the ball in. Aside from that, he left us with little else to reminisce about. Unfortunately, he’ll miss three games after he got sent off after a clumsy challenge that saw his foot roll over the top of the ball and into an uncoming defender’s leg. A bit harsh, in my opinion, certainly not equal to Sidwell’s red. However, it’s done, and this throws down a gauntlet that I hope someone can pick it up, whether it’s Walcott, Podolski, or Gervinho. We’re going to need goals from someone, simple as that.
Back to our back line, I’m awarding a shared MOTM to Mertesacker and Koscielny. Not only did they combine to put us ahead (must…resist.. pun…on…headers…), they held Berbatov off and anchored another solid defensive performance, allowing us to keep a second clean sheet in as many matches. Despite my earlier tetching about Szczęsny, he did look bright and quick coming off his line to snuff out Fulham’s chances as our attempts at offside-traps frequently faltered. Without those two in front of him, however, he might have had much more to put up with on the day.
At the end of the day, we escaped with three points that were far tougher to earn than they should have been. It would have been nice to see us put the game away far more quickly after Sidwell’s sending-off. We just couldn’t find that second goal that would have allowed us to relax and play keep away. Still, three points is three points no matter how you slice it. We’ll sit in third place for a while as we await the results of Spurs-City and Liverpool-Chelsea tomorrow.