1-0 to the Arsenal. A familiar scoreline, but a far from familiar Arsenal performance. For much of the tie – indeed, the entirety of the second half – Udinese bossed possession, and Arsenal were to forced to look for counter-attacks as they tried to grasp a foothold in the match.
Fortunately, we were protecting a lead, thanks to a goal in the fourth minute from Theo Walcott. The English winger met Aaron Ramsey’s cross with a lovely cushioned volley which, at close range, gave Handanovic no chance. Arsenal had started fast and it looked at one stage as if we might blow a shell-shocked Udinese away.
However, led by the slippery front-man Di Natale, the Italians recovered well to secure a foothold in the game, and only the fabulous save from Wojciech Szczesny, a brave block from Alex Song, and the width of the crossbar prevented them from grabbing a first-half equaliser and crucial away goal.
If Arsenal were relieved to see half-time, they couldn’t have known what travails would follow. In the first nine minutes of the half, they lost Kieran Gibbs and his replacement, Johan Djourou, to hamstring injuries. With Armand Traore also out, it meant having to hand a first-team debut to Carl Jenkinson in an unfamiliar left-back role.
The lad did OK, but had he made a major error I would’ve felt incredibly sorry for him: he shouldn’t never have been in that position. Six months ago he was playing in the conference; now we’re expecting him to be ready for the Champions League. It is, frankly, ridiculous.
You could say the same of the introduction of Emmanuel Frimpong, though the tenacious Ghanaian midfielder seems to be taking to first-team football like a duck to the proverbial water. Even so, the fact he gave away several dangerous free-kicks is indicative of his inexperience.
Our squad is thinner than Steve Bould’s hair. Joey Barton has more depth. On the bench yesterday Andrey Arshavin represented the only plausible attacking option. Wantaway Nicklas Bendtner was included to make up the numbers; if he wasn’t brought on for the struggling Chamakh he was never going to be used.
Nevertheless, we held on for what, in this sort of tie, is a good result. We could even have nicked another: only a stunning save from Handanovic prevented Walcott from adding second late on after Gervinho finally rounded off his promising approach play with an effective final pass. A draw or even a 2-1 defeat in Italy will be enough to take us through. It’s great to record another clean sheet, and I thought the triangle of Szczesny, Vermaelen and Koscielny were impressive again, whilst in midfield Aaron Ramsey showed tremendous work ethic and desire.
The problem of our ever-depleting squad, however, remains. Yesterday, Emmanuel Eboue and Carlos Vela became the latest players to leave Arsenal, joining Fabregas, Clichy, Denilson, and Emmanuel-Thomas. More are set to follow. The steady drain of talent is becoming an exodus.
After the game Arsene Wenger declined to speak to the press, ostensibly as part of a stand-off with UEFA, who were unhappy that messages were being passed to pitchside via Boro Primorac and Colin Lewin. He will have been relieved to have found an excuse to avoid the outstretched cameras and microphones. Doubtless he would have faced more questions about strengthening his squad – questions to which, as yet, he has provided few answers.
There remains much work to do: both in the second leg in Udine, and in the transfer market. Get busy, Arsene.