LONDON (AP) -- Arsenal strengthened its hopes of a Champions League spot Saturday after Per Mertesacker's header late in the first half secured a 1-0 victory at Fulham, which played most of the game with 10 men but still came close to an equalizer.
Arsenal dominated possession throughout the game after Steve Sidwell's clumsy challenge on Mikel Arteta earned him a straight red card in the 12th minute. But the Gunners struggled to create any real chances until Laurent Koscielny met an inswinging free kick by the far post in the 43rd and headed it across goal, where Mertesacker was on hand to head it into the net.
Fulham then had a goal ruled out for offside in the second half before Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud was also sent off for a similar lunge on Stanislav Manolev in the 90th.
Arsenal, though held out through stoppage time to move provisionally back into third place, two points ahead of Chelsea, which has two games in hand. Tottenham is five points back ahead of its game against Manchester City on Sunday.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger decided to rest England midfielder Jack Wilshere, with Czech playmaker Tomas Rosicky coming into the side, while Wojciech Szczesny continued in goal as Lukasz Fabianski was still injured.
?Fulham, which lost 3-0 at Craven Cottage to west London rival Chelsea in midweek, started brightl before being reduced to 10 men when Sidwell went in late on Arteta, catching the Arsenal midfielder on his ankle. Sidwell had just returned from a three-match suspension for a similar late challenge on Queens Park Rangers' Armand Traore, and could now see his suspension increased for poor discipline.
The home team still threatened on counter attacks, and Dimitar Berbatov forced a good stop from Szczesny after breaking down the right and into the Arsenal penalty area.
Slowly, the visitors built up a spell of pressure.
Giroud was unfortunate in the 35th when he spun his marker on the edge of the Fulham box before driving a low shot across the face of goal, which beat Mark Schwarzer but hit the outside of his left-hand post.
But Arsenal were ahead three minutes before the break.
Eyong Enoh fouled Aaron Ramsey conceding a free kick some 35 yards out on the right. Walcott floated the ball into the box, and Koscielny headed it back across the face of goal, where Mertesacker arrived unmarked to nod in from a yard out.
After the break, Fulham continued to press Arsenal rather than just sit back. Szczesny had to be alert to palm over a cross from Manolev which looked to be dipping in, before Koscielny headed away as Berbatov arrived at the far post from the resulting corner.
Fulham had the ball in the net when Manolev tapped home after Szczesny spilled a 20-yard free kick from Kieran Richardson, but assistant referee Sian Massey made a correct offside call.
Arsenal also finished with 10-men after Giroud was shown a red card after he clattered into Manolev. Ramsey skewed a shot wide after a quick break in stoppage time, but Arsenal had just about done enough to give their Champions League hopes a major boost.