Home victories against relegation contenders rarely win a team the title, but they do suggest that a side is not about to throw away their chances. So Arsène Wenger could savour a triumph that keeps his team at the top of the Premier League table for at least another week. They may not be favourites to finish in first place, but, here, Arsenal showed their determination not to surrender it without a fight.
Arsenal laboured in the first period against a Fulham side that showed more resilience than usual, but, like the champions that they aspire to becoming, they conjured a top-class move to make the breakthrough in the 57th minute through Santi Cazorla, who soon added another fine goal to secure the win. "We have 51 points after 22 matches and that is one of our best ever [totals] at this stage, so we are doing well," said Wenger.
For a while, it looked as if Rene Meulensteen would be the more satisfied. The Fulham manager's plan to repair the league's most ramshackle defence worked well. He dropped Philippe Senderos and John Arne Riise and started with the same back four that kept a rare clean sheet in the midweek FA Cup victory over Norwich. The fit-again Brede Hangeland made his first Premier League start in three months and 21-year-old Dan Burn made his first ever, having been recalled from loan at Birmingham City this month to help rescue his parent club.
It looked like being a baptism of fire for Burn as Arsenal started brightly. Mesut Özil could have opened the scoring in the fourth minute after being played in by Jack Wilshere. But the German failed to make a firm connection with his right-footed shot, which rolled past Maarten Stekelenburg but not Hangeland, who scrambled the ball to safety.
Özil's fluffed effort was a precursor of what was to come from Arsenal in the rest of the half. They enjoyed the lion's share of possession but pussyfooted about with it, seldom worrying a Fulham side that performed with new-found solidity and energy. It was Arsenal who were looking sluggish.
Fulham gradually grew bolder and in the 26th minute they forced a fine save from Wojciech Szczesny, who tipped over a 20-yard drive from Steve Sidwell. It took a 39th minute set-piece for Arsenal to pierce the Fulham defence again. Cazorla bashed a free-kick into the wall but it rebounded to Bacary Sagna, who shot first time from 16 yards out. Stekelenburg saved well and then produced an even better block to deny Olivier Giroud's close-range follow-up.
Arsenal raised their tempo in the second half and found their fluency. Stekelenburg made a routine save from Giroud in the 52nd minute before being forced into a more difficult one three minutes later, when Gnabry shimmied past two defenders and sent a low shot towards goal from the edge of the box. An extraordinary goalline clearance then saved Fulham, but, moments later, their resistance was shattered.
Arsenal took the lead in the 57th minute through a delightfully intricate move. Cazorla started and finished it, with Giroud and Wilshere contributing quickfire passes in the box before the Spaniard shot into the net from 10 yards. "Against a team of this quality if you switch off and do not track runners even for a moment they can hurt you, and that is what happened," said Meulensteen.
Five minutes later, Arsenal took the match beyond them. Cazorla doubled his team's lead and his own tally for the season as he sent a low shot beyond Stekelenburg from 20 yards.
Meulensteen introduced Darren Bent for Ashkan Dejagah, but the game was gone. Arsenal substitute Lukas Podolski nearly wrought further damage with a ferocious shot from outside the area, but Stekelenburg pawed it on to the post.
"We were in control defensively for 90 minutes, but a bit one-paced in the first half with our passing," said Wenger. "These kind of games against teams who fight not to go down are very difficult."
Fulham could take heart from their performance, even if Bent squandered a late chance to claim a goal, as he shot into the side netting with Szczesny stranded. Meulensteen saw enough to convince him his team will fight for their survival until the end. "At the top and the bottom, this is going to be the most exciting season ever," he said.