To have relinquished two points once in a week, Arsenal so plainly felt, was unfortunate. Twice would have been mighty careless. For 90 largely uncomfortable minutes at Highbury that looked very much on the cards until Robert Pires prevented any further damage to his team's title defence. The timing was poetic. Three days previously a late goal at Anfield had turned an Arsenal win into a draw; here slipping points were gleefully retrieved.
It was bitterly harsh on Jean Tigana's resilient men, whose energy and work rate had been exemplary.
The omens for Fulham were not good when their team coach turned into Avenell Road closely tailed by an ambulance emergency support service van. Ominously, Arsenal were almost ahead on 23 seconds, as Sylvain Wiltord smuggled the ball to Thierry Henry, whose shot brushed the side netting. Soon after, Henry's delicate touch invited Robert Pires to soar up the left flank and flick towards Dennis Bergkamp, hovering with intent inside the six-yard box. Only a critical hand from goalkeeper Maik Taylor averted a goal.
Surely Fulham couldn't afford to let the champions have it all their own way so soon if they wanted to avert a hiding. Indeed, the feisty and influential Sean Davis led by example as his team began to stake a claim for a reasonable percentage of the midfield battleground.
Once Fulham settled down they found the confidence to ask questions of Arsène Wenger's side. When the lively Luis Boa Morte cut in from the left wing and found Facundo Sava with a clever pass Arsenal were left horribly exposed. As the Argentine 'Zorro' bore down on a duel with David Seaman, the North Bank were relieved to see Ashley Cole arrive to rob Sava with a crucially timed and cleanly executed tackle in the box.
Chastened, Arsenal went up the other end to take the lead. Breaking with typically pacy passing through Vieira, via Bergkamp, to Henry, Fulham were suddenly overstretched. Henry eased past Finnan to float a cross into space at the far post. Any sign of any Fulham defenders there? Mais, non. But there was Pires, unmarked, to nod with the minimal of fuss into the far corner. It was the Frenchman's sixth goal in 10 Premiership starts since returning from his cruciate ligament knee injury.
Arsenal threatened their own lead with moments of defensive hesitancy and just before the half hour Fulham hauled themselves back into the game. Arsenal couldn't deal with Finnan's lofted ball into the area, which was headed back out by Marlet towards his compatriot Malbranque. Fulham's chief source of goals at the moment cracked a super volley past Seaman, his fifth in three games.
Arsenal were in one of those moods where their ability to toy with their opponents was not quite matched by their attitude. Henry led attempts to restore the lead, first hampered by Taylor's brave block, then curling the ball too close to challenge the keeper.
Fulham were more than holding their own, though. Defending stoutly, squeezing midfield, and breaking when the opportunity presented itself, this was a good deal closer than a fixture usually regarded in the two managers' home country as France A versus France B. One of Fulham's supposedly second-class Frenchmen, Martin Djetou, impressed as a makeshift midfielder after Sylvain Legwinski limped off. Another, Marlet, crafted the first genuine opening of the second half when he turned Sol Campbell with frightening ease on the edge of the box. His swivelling shot drifted fractionally wide. Arsenal hearts beat that little bit faster. With it, their passing began to go to pot.
Arsenal's anxiety shifted into frustration, symbolised when Henry earned himself a caution for arguing with a debatable offside decision. Presumably Wenger was also irritated, for he unleashed Francis Jeffers in a bid to inject a more urgent threat.
The effect was instant. Jeffers controlled Vieira's pass to tee himself up for a ferocious volley, which Taylor agilely tipped over the bar. The youngster made quite an impact, busying himself in the area from a corner and settling up Gilberto, whose angled drive shook the far post.
Jeffers was again involved with excellent lay-off for Vieira who could only manage a spectacular fresh air kick. He fared better with another late attempt, but clubbed his low strike wide.
Just as the home fans had all but given up hope, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst's clever flick found Jeffers, whose touch was marvellous to nudge the ball across goal for Pires to bundle in from all of one yard. Highbury the library found its voice at the last. With Manchester United winning, they knew that late strike was significant .