Arsenal 2 Fulham 0
The months roll on. February approaches and still Arsenal stay top. Their demise is constantly anticipated but never materialises.
Perhaps the games against Liverpool and Manchester United next month will tell us more. Perhaps the collapse is imminent.
But, though, there were anxious moments in the first half, it looked like one of those textbook home performances from a title-winning side: minimum fuss and, once those first-half worries were over and the first goal was scored, no real threats.
Top of the league: Santi Cazorla’s five-minute double ensured Arsenal stay top of the Premier League
On target: Cazorla scored his second and third goals of the season
Valiant: Fulham held out well but the defeat sees them just a point above the drop zone
ARSENAL: Szczesny 6; Sagna 7, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 7, Monreal 7; Flamini 8, Wilshere 7; Gnabry 7 (Podolski 71), Ozil 6 (Chamberlain 86), Cazorla 8; Giroud 6.
Subs not used: Rosicky, Fabianski, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Park.
Goals: Cazorla 57, 62.
FULHAM: Stekelenburg 6; Riether 6, Hangeland 7, Burn 6, Richardson 6; Sidwell 6, Parker 6; Dejagah 5 (Bent 68), Dempsey 6, Kacaniklic 6 (Kasami 86); Berbatov 6.
Subs not used: Riise, Stockdale, Karagounis, Duff, Hughes.
Man of the match: Santi Cazorla
Ref: Lee Probert (Wiltshire) 7
Where once Arsene Wenger’s side seemed to be devoid of belief, now there is the emergence of genuine leaders in Per Mertesacker and Mathieu Flamini, both driving the team on with words and actions.
Then there is the growing maturity of Jack Wilshere, forever prompting with little passes and adding intensity with his burst of energy.
And there is, of course, the exquisite technique of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, who won them this game.
It is a formidable combination and even if Manchester City lurk ominously — Chelsea, too — who knows what a degree of belief could add to this Arsenal side?
When spring breaks and the reality that they could win a title looms, how will they respond? All you can say for sure is that they certainly have the right elements to complete the job.
‘We have 51 points from 22 games and if you compare that to any other season you will see that it’s one of the best ever,’ said Wenger. ‘We have a good solidarity in the group. We have been remarkably consistent.
Standing firm: Arsenal remain a single point ahead of second placed Manchester City
Impressed: Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger gives the thumbs up after seeing his team stay top of the pile
Famous fan: Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry was in the stands to watch the action
From our Match Zone: Santi Cazorla started and finished the move for Arsenal’s opening goal
‘Let’s not forget we had a very difficult start. We have shown all kinds of ingredients; technically but also mentally to respond to what happened to us at the start of the season.’
Spaniard Cazorla was the decisive influence, but unlike last season he is not carrying an excessive burden of creative expectation.
‘When you play in the final third, he is one of the players who can create something special through his passing or finishing,’ said Wenger.
For Fulham, there is only the prospect of a long and lonely fight against relegation from now until the end of the season.
They could take plenty of positives from their first-half performance — Steve Sidwell even tested Wojciech Szczesny on 27 minutes, forcing a fine save from the Pole. Dan Burn, making his Premier Legaue debut alongside Brede Hangeland in central defence, coped admirably and they benefited from the incisiveness of Alexander Kacaniklic.
Memento: Wojciech Szczesny handed a fan his shirt after the game
Strike: Olivier Giroud shoots for goal but sees his shot thwarted by Maarten Stekelenburg
Twisting and turning: Mesut Ozil dribbles at Dan Burn
Held off: Mathieu Flamini stops Clint Dempsey from getting to the ball
All in all, it was a vast improvement on last weekend’s debacle against Sunderland.
‘There were lots of positives to take,’ said Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen. ‘We are improving and we need to improve our defensive performance, but today was better. This is going to be the most exciting league ever, top and bottom. Until you are mathematically safe, you can take nothing for granted. I think we can survive, the spirit is good and we have quality there.’
Indeed, Arsenal were limited to an early Ozil goalbound strike which Hangeland cleared off the line in that first half as Fulham not only dug in but at times passed nicely around Arsenal. The home side started the second half better, with Serge Gnabry going close and Laurent Koscielny missing a chance from three yards out.
But all it needed was the goal to break Fulham. When it came, on 57 minutes, it was in classic Arsenal style. Not quite up there with Wilshere’s goal of the season against Norwich, but a delightful team move nonetheless, all close control and quick short passes.
Foot in: Scott Parker dispossesses Serge Gnabry
Tricked: Dimitar Berbatov gets away from Spanish defender Nacho Monreal
Shield: Steve Sidwell holds off Jack Wilshere
The sequence ran: Monreal to Cazorla to Giroud to Wilshere to Cazorla, who finished decisively. Better teams than Fulham would have struggled to cope.
The little magician from Asturias effectively finished off the game just five minutes later. Monreal crossed, Hangeland headed clear but only to the feet of Cazorla, who placed his shot from the edge of the box just wide of Maarten Stekelenburg.
There would be more from Arsenal, not least a lively cameo from Lukas Podolski in which he demonstrated his intent to make up for missing chunks of this season.
With almost his first touch on 72 minutes he forced Stekelenburg to parry wide; two minutes later, he forced a superb save from the Dutchman, who tipped Podolski’s shot from the edge of the box on to the post.
Fulham should have scored when Darren Bent rounded Szczesny but, with the goal at his mercy, he pulled the ball wide. None of it really mattered, though; the game was up when the second goal went in — and everyone at the Emirates knew it.
Roll on February and those games against Liverpool and Manchester United. And if Arsenal are still top then, we really will have to start taking them seriously.
Big leap: Dan Burn, on his Premier League debut, heads the ball clear
Holding on: Cazorla grabs Sascha Riether’s shorts
Tumble: Gnabry and Kieran Richardson get tied up on the right wing