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Arsenal stay top, ‘drop’ worries grow for Fulham Cazorla at the double

LONDON, Jan 18, (AFP): Santi Cazorla’s double ensured Arsenal remain at the head of the Premier League table following a 2-0 home victory over struggling Fulham on Saturday. Spain playmaker Cazorla struck twice inside five second half minutes to ensure Arsene Wenger’s side secured a fifth successive league victory. This was an underwhelming performance from Arsenal but it was enough to keep the north London club a point clear of second-placed Manchester City and reinforce the view they will be hard to dislodge from top spot. Defeat combined with results elsewhere meant Fulham dropped to within one place and one point of the relegation places, although manager Rene Meulensteen will have been heartened by the way his side remained in the game for almost an hour.

Wenger’s side had passed their most recent test of nerve when they won at Aston Villa to reclaim the lead after first Chelsea and then City had enjoyed 24-hour stays at the head of the table. Wenger insisted before this game, however, the pressure on his side this time around was nothing compared to last year when the Gunners endured a season-long scramble to clinch a top four place. And on paper, there was little to suggest Arsenal’s challenge would be hampered by a Fulham side locked in a tense battle for survival. The Cottagers have shown improved form since Meulensteen took charge, although their lack of consistency was highlighted in the week before this clash when they followed a 4-1 home league defeat to Sunderland with a convincing FA Cup victory over Norwich. That win had clearly boosted confidence and for almost an hour, the visitors looked capable of claiming a third successive draw at this stadium.

With Brede Hangeland back in central defence for his first league appearance since October, Meulensteen’s side were well organised and rarely troubled by a stuttering Arsenal. Hangeland showed excellent anticipation to clear off the line after Mesut Ozil had placed a shot beyond keeper Maarten Stekelenburg in the fourth minute. But otherwise, Fulham were largely untroubled and might have taken an unexpected lead midway through the first half when Wojciech Szczesny tipped Steve Sidwell’s shot onto the crossbar. Jack Wilshere did manage to force a save from Stekelenburg in the 38th minute and the keeper was equally alert to deny Bacary Sagna’s follow up. But Arsenal’s performance was surprisingly lacklustre and it was clear they would have to step up the tempo if they were to avoid dropping points.

But Arsenal’s passing moves began to gather momentum and they finally made the breakthrough after a sustained period of pressure in the 58th minute, and within five minutes the game was effectively over. Cazorla’s opening goal came after Sagna and Serge Gnabry had both been denied by desperate blocks.
But the quality of the build-up play to the Spain midfielder’s strike highlighted the difference in class. Cazorla gained possession on the left after another frantic clearance, moved inside and kick-started a slick triangle of one-touch passes involving Olivier Giroud and Wilshere before finishing right footed from 12 yards out.

The second was more routine with Hangeland failing to get sufficient distance on a clearing header from Nacho Monreal’s cross, directing the ball only as far as Cazorla, who placed a left foot shot beyond Stekelenburg from 20 yards. Fulham’s resistance was broken, although it would have been worse for Meulensteen’s side had Stekelenburg not managed to tip Lukas Podolski’s powerful shot onto the post.
Darren Bent missed a late chance to halve the deficit but this was ultimately a routine victory for an Arsenal side growing in belief they can finish champions.

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