Samir Nasri may have stolen the headlines but Arsene Wenger also paid tribute to Johan Djourou for helping Arsenal go top of the Barclays Premier League with a nervy win over Fulham.
Nasri scored both Gunners goals with two flashes of genius at the Emirates Stadium yesterday but Djourou helped ensure his side conceded only one after replacing the concussed Laurent Koscielny with almost an hour still to play.
Arsenal had wasted a succession of chances to score more than Nasri’s sublime opener when Koscielny was hurt in a sickening clash of heads with centre-back partner Sebastien Squillaci.
Fulham took full advantage of the carnage to equalise through Diomansy Kamara and gave as good as they got for the remainder of the game.
That they failed to score again owed a lot to Switzerland defender Djourou, who is still being eased back into the first team after spending a year out with a serious knee injury.
Manager Wenger said: “He is doing very well, Johan.
“You know, he has been out for a year. As you have noticed, I rotate him a little bit because we do not want to lose him.
“A guy who has been out a year, you cannot play him three games per week.
“But, from the start of the season, he is as well going from strength to strength.
“In the difficult period of our team – when we had to defend in the air – he was dominant.
“And he has not only shown dominance, but personality as well.
“That’s why I’m happy.
“He came here as a midfielder and we transformed him into a centre-back, and I believe he can be a very good centre-back.”
Djourou has been in and out of the side this season, with Koscielny and Squillaci appearing to be Wenger’s preferred pairing in the absence of the injured Thomas Vermaelen.
But Djourou, 23, will almost certainly start Wednesday night’s crucial Champions League game with Partizan Belgrade if Koscielny fails cognitive tests.
“The players know that, from game to game, we rotate and everybody will have to start in our squad,” said Wenger, who did not know yesterday how long Koscielny was likely to be sidelined for.
The Gunners boss also defended his side’s “vulnerable” rearguard yesterday, insisting he took a calculated risk in order to try to score a winner.
“We finished the game with (Theo) Walcott on the pitch, Nasri on the pitch, (Andrey) Arshavin on the pitch, (Robin) van Persie on the pitch, (Marouane) Chamakh on the pitch,” he said.
“We had five strikers on the pitch so I expected to suffer a little bit on the corners.
“Overall, I believe in the second half our defenders dealt well with the high balls.”
The victory ensured Arsenal avoided a third successive Premier League home match without a win following defeats against Newcastle and Tottenham.
It was far from a champion performance for a team who now lead the division but Wenger insists Fulham should be given due credit.
He said: “They put us always under pressure because (Zoltan) Gera and Kamara combined well, their midfield was efficient, they played quite direct to expose us with balls behind our defence.
“We needed not only quality but spirit and resilience, and we got it.”
Those sentiments were echoed by manager Mark Hughes, who also singled out excellent displays from Simon Davies, Dickson Etuhu and Kamara.
“I thought there were some really good performances,” he said.
“Simon Davies did really well, he gave us a good option on the right - probably his best game for us for a number of weeks.
“Dickson Etuhu was obviously very strong in those midfield areas, and ’Joe’ Kamara obviously took his goal really well and could’ve had another one.”
Defeat means Fulham now lie outside the relegation zone on goal difference alone but Hughes insisted they will pull away from danger once key men return from injury.
“Hopefully we’ll start getting players back,” he said.
“Carlos Salcido hopefully will be back next week, Moussa Dembele might be an option for us, so that will help us.”