Arsenal benefitted from an early red card shown to their former player Steve Sidwell when edging past Fulham 1-0 in an nervy performance at Craven Cottage.
Sidwell was dismissed for a dangerous tackle on Mikel Arteta just 12 minutes into his return to first-team football following another red card in a home win over QPR on April 1.
Fulham - safely ensconced in mid-table with little to play for at the end of the season - responded well to the early setback and for long spells in West London were the superior side, but Per Mertesacker claimed the only goal of the game when heading in from close range after 43 minutes.
Arsenal had striker Olivier Giroud sent off in the closing minutes for a clumsy yet accidental challenge on Stanislav Manolev, but held on despite some late pressure to secure a crucial three points in the battle for Champions League football.
The victory takes Arsenal back into third, two points ahead of Chelsea and five ahead of Tottenham, both of whom have two games in hand.
Arsene Wenger dropped Jack Wilshere to the bench after two unconvincing performances following his return from injury as Tomas Rosicky came in alongside Nacho Monreal, who replaced Kieran Gibbs after the left-back took a knock in the 0-0 draw at home to Everton on Tuesday.
In one of four changes following a 3-0 loss to Chelsea, Fulham brought Sidwell back from suspension to face his former side but the midfielder lasted all of 12 minutes before being sent off again. Arteta gave Sidwell a sniff of the ball with a loose touch in midfield but the Fulham man launched in late and hard to catch his opponent above the ankle. It may have been a smidgen harsh, but it was undeniably dangerous.
The home side had already enjoyed an excellent early chance when Urby Emanuelson was left completely unmarked in the box after only a minute - the Dutchman failing to find a team-mate with his low cross - and, unexpectedly, Fulham continued to possess the greater threat despite going a man down, especially on the break.
After 20 minutes, Bryan Ruiz was allowed to drive into open space in midfield before slipping a pass in for Dimitar Berbatov. The striker took the ball wide before rifling a shot right at Wojciech Szczesny, who batted it away for a corner. Alexander Kacaniklic, recalled from a loan spell at Burnley, also threatened with a low effort that deflected behind off Mertesacker, and the lively Emanuelson did well to rob Monreal of possession before having a dangerous curling effort tipped wide.
Arsenal were distinctly lethargic under the warm, late-April sun, with two half-chances falling to Theo Walcott and Giroud looking uninspired in attack. However, on 35 minutes, the Frenchman suddenly struck the woodwork when collecting a short pass from Santi Cazorla, turning on the edge of the box and seeing his low shot back across goal strike the base of the post.
Despite their underwhelming first-half performance, Arsenal found themselves in front just two minutes before the break. Laurent Koscielny rose to meet a free-kick at the back post and did enough to send the ball back across goal, where Mertesacker had lost his distant predecessor in the Arsenal back four, Philippe Senderos, to nod in from close range.
The visitors were fortunate not to go down to 10 men in the second half when Arteta, having already been harshly booked for a phantom trip on Emanuelson, was rather more relieved to see what looked a clear foul on Kacaniklic go unpunished as he chopped the accelerating winger to ground. Had Andre Marriner not adjudged there to be contact with the ball, a second yellow would certainly have followed.
Still Arsenal laboured. Even Cazorla, normally so sharp on the ball, was afflicted and after receiving a pass from Rosicky the Spaniard judged his pass poorly as Walcott made a fine run in behind the defence. After 71 minutes, Wenger had seen enough and Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski replaced Rosicky and Walcott.
With 12 minutes remaining, Arsenal survived a minor scare when Manolev tapped the ball home from close range after Szczesny had contrived to spill a Ruiz free-kick right at his feet. It was another unconvincing moment from a goalkeeper who is making a habit of failing to get the ball clear with his palms, but official Sian Massey rightly raised her flag for offside.
Fulham were almost killed off when Cazorla found space to the right of Ramsey and got a firm shot away, but his effort was blocked and, within minutes, Arsenal were placed firmly on the back foot when Giroud was given a harsh red card. The striker appeared to be attempting to control the ball by placing his boot on top of it but slipped and caught Manolev instead.
That gave Fulham the impetus to push on for an equaliser and Arsenal's nerves were frayed by the end, with Ramsey passing up a huge chance to end the contest once and for all when firing wide after being put through on goal. Still, the visitors did just enough to close the game out.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Per Mertesacker (Arsenal) - His header decided the game but the big German centre-back also played a prominent role in keeping Fulham at bay towards the end of the contest.
FULHAM: Schwarzer 6, Manolev 6, Senderos 5, Hangeland 6, Richardson 6, Emanuelson 8, Enoh 6, Sidwell 4, Kacaniklic 6, Ruiz 6, Berbatov 7. Subs: Petric N/A, Frei N/A.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 6, Sagna 6, Mertesacker 8, Koscielny 7, Monreal 5, Ramsey 5, Arteta 6, Walcott 6, Rosicky 5, Cazorla 6, Giroud 5. Subs: Wilshere 6, Podolski 6, Vermaelen N/A.
- Sports & Recreation
- Steve Sidwell
- Jack Wilshere