Arsenal 1-0 Udinese
The Short Report
Life without Cesc began with a crucial win, but a far from convincing performance. Theo Walcott’s early goal was as good as it got and we managed to hold onto the lead despite coming under severe pressure from a dangerous Udinese side. If last night was nerve-wracking, then next week’s return leg promises to be positively terrifying.
The AL Report
The first home match of the season is usually a festive occasion; all about renewing routines and acquaintances. This year’s curtain-raiser at the Emirates had an all-together more charged atmosphere as we found ourselves immediately plunged into a crucial tie that will define our season.
This is the fifth time we have had to qualify for the Champions League via the play-offs, but never before have we had to face a team from one of Europe’s top leagues. Coming to London with a reputation for incisive, attacking football, Udinese have endured a turbulent summer and like us, have seen their star player depart for Barcelona.
We took to the field with a line-up that had a Carling Cup feel to it. Marouane Chamakh was given a start in place of the suspended new skipper Robin van Persie, whilst Theo Walcott was given the nod ahead of Andrey Arshavin.
Over the last few months, our support has become splintered and divided like never before, yet everyone fully got behind the team from the start, as if sensing that this was the time they needed us most.
They were rewarded by a lovely early goal, which certainly helped the mood. Bacary Sagna’s excellent ball over the top set Aaron Ramsey racing clear on the right wing. His quick ball into the box was met on the volley by Theo. With just four minutes on the clock, expectations were raised that this could be another routine passage through to the group stages.
If the goal gave the crowd any false sense of security, they were soon shaken out of it as Antonio di Natale’s rattled off the bar. The Italians were quickly presented with another chance to equalise when Pablo Armero was inexplicably allowed to run 50 yards through the midfield unchallenged. Wojciech Szczesny denied him with a superb point-blank save and it wouldn’t be the last time he would be called into action.
We always looked vulnerable to an Udinese counter-attack and our midfield lacked both power and creativity. Just before the break, the veteran Di Natale threatened again with his shot going just wide of the post.
At half-time, a hamstring injury to Kieran Gibbs prompted a defensive reshuffle, with Johan Djourou coming on and Thomas Vermaelen moved to left-back. Just moments later, Djourou pulled up and was replaced by Carl Jenkinson. It was a tough baptism for the 19 year old. At Christmas he had been playing in the Conference and now he found himself involved in the biggest competition in club football.
Udinese gradually began to take control of the game. We gave the ball away cheaply and suffered some extremely nervy moments, not least when Szczesny was forced into another excellent save from a Di Natale free-kick.
We had chances of our own towards the end and Walcott could have had a hat-trick had he not squandered two glorious chances. The first was an infuriating fluffed chip and the second came about after an excellent run by the lively Gervinho. The Ivorian skipped past two players before threading a lovely pass through to Theo, who could only hit it straight at the keeper.
The final whistle was greeted with relief tempered with the knowledge that a single goal doesn’t leave us much of an advantage to take to Italy next week.
The most worrying thing was that we looked toothless in attack. Chamakh was a forlorn presence up front, failing to hold the ball up and easily getting robbed of possession. Thankfully Robin van Persie will be back for the return leg, but will he be joined by those much needed reinforcements by then?
Next up: Big-spending Liverpool come to town for a Saturday lunchtime kick-off.
Man of the Match
Wenger may have problems to address all over the pitch, but in Wojciech Szczesny, he looks to have finally nailed one of the most troubling positions of all. He was simply outstanding last night. Calm, authoritative and decisive, he made two crucial saves in each half, which ensured that we go to Italy with something to protect.
With Robin van Persie missing because of his extraordinary dismissal at the Nou Camp in March, all eyes were on Marouane Chamakh to lead the line. Utterly bereft of confidence, the Moroccan failed to provide any kind of goal threat and gave the ball away alarmingly often. In this kind of form, the thought of him being the main back-up to the famously brittle van Persie will send a shiver down the spine of every Gooner.
Moan of the Match
If volleying home Aaron Ramsey’s cross was Theo Walcott at his instinctive best, a moment late in the second half summed up what can him such a frustrating player. Running onto a defence-splitting pass from Ramsey, he was caught in two minds and attempted a ludicrous chip which dribbled away to the keeper. The chance he missed afterwards was even more straightforward, when he sidefooted straight at the keeper. Let’s just hope his wastefulness doesn’t come back to haunt us next week.
The Final Word
Just two games in and our already threadbare squad is plagued with injuries and suspensions, which could derail our season before it properly gets started. Despite that, we managed to get a win last night and deny Udinese the away goal that they looked capable of getting any time.
Reinforcements have to arrive soon because right now we are just flying by the seat of our pants. Failing to qualify for the Champions League is unthinkable, yet remains a chilling possibility.
2011-12 | Match Reports