Udinese 1-2 Arsenal
The Short Report
Arsene Wenger is usually mocked when he talks up his players' 'mental strength', but they showed it in spades at the Stadio Friuli. We have had to cope with some serious adversity in recent times, yet we are still fighting and still part of Europe's elite - fourteen years and counting.
The AL Report
At a time when everyone has been lining up to give us a kicking, we needed a reaction. And boy did we get it last night.
This was a result built on immense courage and quality. Not only have we secured Champions League football for the fourteenth year in a row, but we have forced those who have been gleefully observing our recent struggles to change the script. You can put away the cracked crest for now boys.
With so many injuries and Samir Nasri joining the great Arsenal exodus, Arsene Wenger did at least receive a small piece of good news before kick-off. UEFA’s decision to extend his ludicrous touchline ban was put on hold pending an appeal leaving him free to take his place in the dugout.
Johan Djourou made his first start of the season alongside Thomas Vermaelen in defence. Carl Jenkinson’s rise from obscurity to the elite continued as he slotted in at right back, with Bacary Sagna moving to the left.
Alex Song and Gervinho, still serving domestic bans, came back into the side whilst new cult hero Emanuel Frimpong added extra steel to the midfield. Up front, Wenger opted for the pace of Theo Walcott ahead of Andrey Arshavin.
Udinese’s fans, buoyed by their side’s impressive showing last week, ensured the Stadio Friuli was colourful and noisy. Going into such a hostile arena protecting a slender lead, we could have been forgiven for making a cagey start, but that’s never exactly been our style.
Despite the intense humidity, both teams started at a relentless pace. We were on the front foot immediately as Gervinho’s cross fell just short of Robin van Persie with barely a minute on the clock. Antonio Di Natale, so dangerous last week, had the ball in the net shortly afterwards, but mercifully he was a yard or so offside.
The contest continued to swing back and forth. Whilst being composed and positive, we always looked vulnerable to Udinese’s pacey counter-attacks. Di Natale hit the post from close range and Handovic produced an excellent double save, first parrying Walcott’s shot then Robin van Persie’s attempt from the rebound.
Five minutes before the break, Di Natale finally got the goal his excellent play over the two legs deserved. Giampiero Pinzi sent a clever ball in that eldued Djourou and was met by the veteran, steering a glorious looping header past Wojciech Szczesny.
Now, if you believe what you read, a setback like this would see Wenger’s kids self-destruct. The critics must have been sharpening their pens in delight. Surely we were too fragile, too young and unable to cope with adversity?
Not a bit of it. We regrouped at half-time, Wenger swapped Frimpong for Tomas Rosicky and we came out with fresh purpose and resolve, needing only ten minutes to find the equaliser. It came after yet another mazy run by Gervinho, ghosting past the Italians’ defence before cutting t back for Van Persie, who swept it home with ease. It was a priceless away goal and after everything that’s happened, a cathartic moment for players and fans alike.
We didn’t have to wait too long for the next one either. A handball by Thomas Vermaelen was spotted by the goal-line official and the ref gave Udinese a penalty. Di Natale blasted it towards the top right corner, but Szczesny came up with a simply breathtaking save. Somehow, he not only guessed the right way, but held his arm up at the last second to send it over the bar. It is tempting to say you won’t see a better save all season, but Wojciech will probably better it – he is just an outstanding talent.
Barely five minutes later came the winner. Walcott and the excellent Bacary Sagna broke from the left, exchanging passes before setting Theo through on goal. He had missed a number of chances to put the tie beyond doubt, especially last week, but he made no mistake this time, coolly slotting it past Handovic.
It completely knocked the stuffing out of Udinese, who now needed an improbable three goals to go through. Clearly frustrated, a few niggles crept into the contest and Waclott in particular came in for some rough treatment.
We saw out the remaining half hour comfortably and professionally. Substitute Armand Traore missed a clear chance to add a third, but shot straight at the keeper.
Not that it mattered. Qualifying for this compeition may get harder every year, yet we are still there. Now let's go and add the quality that will help this group, who are clearly so proud to wear the shirt, develop into the best they can be.
Man of the Match
There were a few contenders, not least the outstanding Carl Jenkinson whose mature performance was astonishing given the step-up he has had to make. but Gervinho just about gets the nod. He carried the attacking threat all evening and brilliantly set up the first goal. His willingness to run at players was very refreshing and he gives us a directness going forward that we’ve been lacking for some time.
At first glance, the decision to replace the lively Frimpong with Tomas Rosicky looked a strange one, yet it proved to be inspired. Written off by so many after an injury wracked and underwhelming Arsenal career, he more than stepped up: snapping into tackles and driving us forward. Possibly his finest hour in a red and white shirt.
Moan of the Match
The eagle-eyed goal-line official who spotted Vermaelen’s handball was let down by his colleague at the other end, who missed a blatant elbow on Walcott in the second half. Moments later, Theo picked up a booking for mild retaliation after being chopped down and will have to sit out our opening match.
The Final Word
It was great to see the boss come out fighting after copping so much flak recently. Some of it has been justified of course, but too often the pundits have crossed the line from criticism into downright ridicule.
This result doesn’t make all the problems go away, but it will stop the vultures circling for a few days and allow him space to prepare for Sunday’s visit to Old Trafford. If he can inspire the team to produce the quality they did tonight, then we have every chance of coming away with something. A signing or two before the weekend would go someway to boosting morale even further.
Follow me on Twitter: @Mike_N5
Image: Emanuele Rosso via Flickr (reproduced using Creative Commons License)
2011-12 | Match Reports