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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 23:03 GMT
Pires saves Arsenal blushes
Patrick Vieira is hustled off the ball by Martin Djetou
Arsenal were constantly harried by Fulham
Arsenal 2-1 Fulham

Arsenal's title challenge remains on course after Robert Pires popped up with an injury-time winner against Fulham.

Having been pegged back by a last-minute Liverpool equaliser in midweek, Arsenal left it late themselves against a stubborn Fulham side.

When Pires, set up by fellow Frenchman Thierry Henry, headed the Gunners ahead after 17 minutes, it seemed Arsenal would be cruising to victory.

It was a game to be patient. We needed maturity and mental strength

Arsene Wenger

But their compatriot Steed Malbranque cancelled that out with a powerful 29th-minute strike for Fulham.

And the west London side withstood intense second-half Arsenal pressure to come agonisingly close to clinching only their second point at Highbury in 16 attempts.

Arsenal's Thierry Henry challenges Fulham's Steve Finnan
Riding high: Arsenal's Thierry Henry challenges Fulham's Steve Finnan
But in stoppage time, Pires tapped in after some neat work by substitute Francis Jeffers to give the Gunners three points.

Fulham have never won at Highbury and from the way the match started, it looked as if that record would not be threatened.

Henry took all of 22 seconds to threaten Maik Taylor's goal, striking the side netting after he had twisted past Martin Djetou.

Fulham's defence looked nervous and Luis Boa Morte's desperate clearance from Pires' cross was just one of several chances Arsenal had to open the scoring.

But it was Boa Morte who was at fault when Arsenal did score, letting Pires drift into space in the area and rise unmarked to head Henry's neat cross down into the Fulham net.

A goal down and without Sylvain Legwinski, who limped off within 10 minutes and Fulham could have been staring a heavy defeat in the face.

Key moments
17 mins: Pires heads Arsenal into the lead
29 mins: Malbranque's powerful volley brings Fulham level
90 mins: Pires clinches the points for Arsenal with an injury-time winner

But they seemed to play more freely after going behind and they began to take the game to Arsenal.

And their equaliser, which came when Malbranque fired home a low volley into the corner of David Seaman's net after the Arsenal defence failed to clear, was deserved.

The home team regrouped and began to reassert themselves but their earlier speed and fluency was missing.

We believe we can stay up - we need to win five games

Jean Tigana

There were chances with Henry showing fantastic acceleration to skip through the Arsenal defence but Taylor was quick to come out and deny him.

Wiltord twice almost got behind the Fulham defence from passes from Sol Campbell and Dennis Bergkamp.

The Arsenal pressure continued in the second half with Wiltord flashing the ball across the face of the goal but Henry just failed to get a touch.

Wiltord himself did find the net only to see the linesman belatedly raise his flag for offside.

Arsene Wenger shuffled his pack in an attempt to find a breakthrough and it nearly paid off immediately with substitute Jeffers' volley forcing a fine tip-over from Taylor.

Henry and Jeffers then combined well to tee up Gilberto but the Brazilian struck the post from eight yards out.

It seemed as if it might not be Arsenal's day but then came Pires' injury-time winner.


Arsenal: Seaman, Cole, Keown, Campbell, Lauren (Toure 84), Pires, Vieira, Silva (van Bronckhorst 79), Wiltord (Jeffers 70), Bergkamp, Henry.
Subs Not Used: Taylor, Cygan.

Booked: Lauren, Henry, Toure.

Fulham: Taylor, Harley, Goma, Djetou, Finnan, Boa Morte, Davis, Malbranque, Legwinski (Melville 10), Marlet, Sava (Saha 69).
Subs Not Used: Goldbaek, Herrera, Wome.

Booked: Melville.

Attendance: 38,050

Referee: E Wolstenholme (Lancashire).

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC Five Live's Simon Brotherton
"Fulham were tidy but rarely threatened"
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger
"It shows that this side has character"
Arsenal defender Ashley Cole
"We thought we'd lost it"
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