Damiano exclusive

Monday 25 February 2002

From Ian McCulloch - Images Javier Garcia

In an effort to sort out their poor home form, Arsenal apparently spent Friday night at a hotel in an attempt to fool the players into thinking that they were playing away. On the evidence of Saturday's performance, Fulham should consider moving into Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed's Ritz on a permanent basis.

So successful were the Gunners in recreating the spirit and togetherness only previously found on away trips, that they tore Fulham apart with a pace and a power rarely seen even on the Premiership stage.

Arsenal were helped by Fulham's approach to the game. Most teams visiting Highbury would put ten men behind the ball - the Whites played their normal open game, and they refused to resort to the brutal tactics that most teams, Arsenal included, resort to when under pressure. I bet Arsene Wenger could not believe his luck.

Assistant manager Christian Damiano, speaking after the game, was equananimus about the defeat.

"I think we took two lessons today" he said "We took a lesson in football and a lesson in humility. When you look at their big players, they work very hard for each other and they are very focussed on doing well for the team. It was a very big lesson for us."

You could see what he meant. In Henry and Vierra and their other players, Arsenal have some of the biggest names in English football, but the tireless way in which they all worked for each other was a marvel. Their movement off the ball was stunning and the manner in which the whole team seemed to either attack or defend together was a striking example of the art of total football.

In Fulham's defence they haven't, and won't, come up against any other side who play with such speed, but it was concerning how naive they looked at times in the face of the onslaught. The phrase, lambs to the slaughter, comes to mind.

But this was a game that, I suspect, most of us expected to lose. More worrying was Tuesday night's loss up at Middlesbrough. Fulham may not be ready to challenge the top five in the Premiership, but their pretensions are to be at the head of the next tranche of teams and to play in Europe. To do that they have to go to places like the Riverside and pick up results, regardless of refereeing decisions. As Damiano said, that was the result that really mattered.

"The defeat at Middlesbrough was more disappointing" said the Frenchman "You are never happy when you lose, but the defeat there was abnormal because of two big mistakes by the referee and this is always very hard. But today the situation has taught us a lot. At the end I think that we know our level and we know that we have a long way to go before we can match Arsenal."

An honest appraisal, and one which will stand Fulham in good stead as they prepare for next season's assault on the Premiership. Damiano's ambition is to be as good as Arsenal and that's a mouth-watering prospect for Fulham fans. A dose of healthy realism will stand us all in better stead than this season's outrageous optimism.

And speaking of refereeing decisions, while in no way having any effect on the outcome of the match, there was yet again another perplexing performance, this time from the lineswoman. Struggling, perhaps understandably, to keep up with the pace of the play, she managed to get virtually all of her decisions wrong, and was ultimately handed the rarest and most damning of indictments of having one of her decisions overturned by the referee.

She went home with the insults of the Fulham faithful ringing in her ears, who incidentally, kept singing until the final whistle. It was a terrific performance from the fans, worthy of a championship winning team.