Alexandr Hleb has the last word

Arsenal came from behind to avoid defeat in a number of matches last season. This time, in their season opener, Wenger’s side scripted another revival. Dominic Fifield reports.

Arsenal’s players convened in the centre circle at the final whistle, their huddle mustered amid an eruption of relief as much as elation. For so long, their performance had had an undercurrent of panic. In the end disaster was averted, but the re-emergence of familiar failings will hardly have the other title contenders quaking.

Arsene Wenger’s side came from behind to avoid defeat some 15 times last season; now their first game of this campaign saw another revival. Such persistence is admirable, even if occasions such as these are too fraught for comfort. Fulham’s goalkeeper Tony Warner, called up only after Antti Niemi suffered a wrist injury in the warm-up, had proved unbreachable until, six minutes from time, Carlos Bocanegra blocked Kolo Toure’s charge illegally and Arsenal had their lifeline. Robin van Persie slammed in the resultant penalty and, with the visitors tiring, there was a sense of inevitability that the comeback would be capped with a winner.

Only 12 seconds remained when Cesc Fabregas, liberated once his manager’s substitutions pinned wingers to either flank, slipped Alexandr Hleb into the area. Hleb worked himself into space away from Chris Baird and finished crisply to round off the revival.

Fulham, organised and impressive, had seen a first-ever win at Arsenal snatched from them but they should take away great encouragement. Meanwhile, Wenger can breathe again.

“You can get momentum from games like that, and real belief,” said Wenger. “To have lost the game today would have been a big blow for the team because everyone would have been talking about this being the first match after Thierry Henry had left. People will say it was lucky, but I don’t believe in luck. Fulham were tiring... they had players suffering cramps because they were running after the ball so much. But, in terms of psychology, that was important.” Anything may indeed be possible, though the reality is that Arsenal must hope this implants discipline into their players. For too long, they had wheezed in frustration with Warner’s excellence contrasting starkly with Jens Lehman’s generosity at the other end. The German had attempted an ambitious reverse pass to his full-back, Gael Clichy, after 52 seconds and succeeded only in scuffing the loose ball off his left leg into David Healy’s path. The Northern Ireland striker’s first touch as a Fulham player yielded his first top-flight goal, speared into the empty net. “Jens is liable to do something silly,” said Lawrie Sanchez. “He’s one worth chasing down if you’re a forward. We should have brought home the bacon based on that.”

That they did not do so was, said Sanchez, partly down to the referee Phil Dowd’s apparent refusal to crack down on simulation. Three times in the first half, Sanchez claimed, Arsenal players should have been penalised for dives. “They went unpunished and that gave them the impression they could get away with it.”

Hleb’s penalty appeal as he tumbled under Baird’s challenge might actually have been legitimate though Fulham, too, could feel aggrieved when the busy Steven Davis tumbled at the other end. “Dowd said our one was ‘accidental’,” added the Fulham manager. “That’s an interesting decision.”

Wenger was adamant his charges had not been play-acting and admitted he had instructed Arsenal players guilty of such offences in the past to “cut it out”. Whether some of his own players are punished for their actions in the melee after Van Persie’s equaliser, all born of Warner’s reluctance to relinquish the ball for the kick-off, remains to be seen. Mathieu Flamini and Papa Bouba Diop were booked in the flare-up. Others were lucky to escape sanction.

The booking handed to Warner was harsh given his overall excellence. His saves from Fabregas and Hleb in the first period, and Tomas Rosicky and Van Persie later, deserved much better than ultimate defeat. Fulham, so bold in their refusal to sit deep, might have gained proper reward had Clint Dempsey converted a one-on-one chance 12 minutes from time.

As it was, with a new-look Fulham beaten away and Arsenal coming from behind, this contest reverted to type.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007