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By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - Arsenal's current place in the table given their horrific start has led to optimism heading into the new year. Fulham, meanwhile, are hoping their brutal finishes to matches have gone with the turn of the calendar.
The two sides meet Monday at Craven Cottage, with the Gunners trying to firm up their hold on a precious top-four spot.
Manager Arsene Wenger and his team were assailed from all sides after a league start that saw Arsenal (11-3-5) grab just three points from their first five matches while conceding 14 goals - highlighted by Manchester United's 8-2 rampage at Old Trafford on Aug. 28. The nadir was reached nearly three weeks late in a 4-3 defeat at last-place Blackburn Rovers in which the Gunners conceded two own goals.
Since leaving Ewood Park, though, the rise of Robin van Persie has reversed Arsenal's fortunes. The Dutch striker leads the Premier League with 17 goals through 18 matches and has bagged 16 in 13 league matches since the Sept. 17 loss at Blackburn.
He struck again for his eighth match-winning goal this season Saturday, finishing Andrei Arshavin's through ball in the 60th minute for a 1-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers. It was Van Persie's 35th EPL goal in the 2011 calendar year, one shy of Alan Shearer's record.
The victory, coupled with Chelsea's surprising loss to Aston Villa, put the Gunners two points clear of Chelsea and Liverpool in fourth place - a spot few thought possible given their dreadful opening results.
"I give credit to the players because we have been 17th or 18th in the League and we focused and improved as a team, with a formidable spirit in the side," Wenger said. "That got us where we are today. We still have room for improvement, but there is a good basis there because the attitude and spirit are really great."
Wenger will need to make one change to his starting XI for this match after left back Thomas Vermaelen suffered a calf strain in the victory. Kieran Gibbs may be close to returning, but it's also possible the Arsenal boss may use 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Wenger also did not say if veteran striker Thierry Henry would be available for this match. Henry, who scored a club-record 226 goals for the Gunners from 1999-2007 and is playing in the United States for the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, signed a two-month contract Thursday.
Fulham (4-8-7) have 20 points and are five clear of the drop zone, but they enter this match again lamenting their squandering of a full three points. The Cottagers had the run of play for nearly all of the first half and took an early lead on Orlando Sa's goal in the seventh minute, but they conceded an equaliser in the fourth minute of stoppage time and settled for a 1-1 draw Saturday at Norwich City.
"There were a few tired legs in the second half but if you're in the fourth minute of injury time you hope to get the three points even if your tested," manager Martin Jol said. "Sometimes one goal is enough but it wasn't to be today."
It was the 10th goal Fulham have allowed in the 80th minute or later in league play and 12th overall this season including Europa League matches.
Those late blushes have cost the Cottagers eight points in league play, and two of those missing points were thanks to Vermaelen. His 82nd-minute goal at Emirates gave Arsenal a 1-1 draw Nov. 26 and extended Fulham's winless streak versus the Gunners to six matches (0-3-3).
Fulham have not beaten Arsenal since a 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage on Aug. 23, 2008, and are 2-4-15 against them in league play since the start of the 2001-02 season.
Updated December 31, 2011