In the run up to this game, I’d have been lying if I’d said I wasn’t worried. When I saw the XI we’d be fielding, those concerns only grew. I was sat in an Irish bar in Italy, far removed from the constant team news bulletins and probable line-ups I’m accustomed to. As I watched the team emerge from the tunnel, I saw their faces: youthful, raw, and understandably anxious. Six months ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing conference football. This was Emmanuel Frimpong’s second senior start. And here they were, in the preliminary stages of the world’s greatest club competition: the Champions League.
I was nervous, but I was a mere TV viewer; not even in the stadium in the stadium to lend my support. These lads were right in the firing line, directly responsible for securing the cash and cachet that Champions League football begins. By the end of the night, their furrowed brows had turned to smiles, and my panic to pride.
It’s not just Frimpong and Jenkinson. Compared to some others, their contribution was modest. To a man, they stepped up and responded brilliantly, providing a reprieve for a manager and a club who have been struck by blow after blow in recent weeks.
You all know the result by now, and how it came about, so I don’t need to dwell on the detail of the game. I’m sure we were all fearful when Di Natale’s header looped beyond Szczesny and in to the net, drawing Udinese level, but the fact remained that a single Arsenal goal would leave the Italians needing three.
When that goal eventually came, it was no surprise that Gervinho was the creator. I thought the Ivorian was superb. His movement, speed, and ability to dart in from either the right or left make him a nightmare to mark, whilst his close control means he’ll win plenty of penalties over the coming months. We saw all this against Newcastle, but against Udinese we saw something else: end product. Driving in from the left, he dragged the ball beyond a defender, accelerated to the byline, and cut it back for the waiting Van Persie to sidefoot home.
That should have been that, but Arsenal being Arsenal, we almost found a way to throw it away. A very debatable penalty was awarded for a supposed handball by Thomas Vermaelen, and it required a quite stunning save from Szczesny to deny Di Natale a goal that could have transformed the tie.
As it was, Arsenal ended up putting the seal on the victory in style. Bacary Sagna, whose solidity in the unfamiliar role of left-back is just another exhibit in the growing list of evidence that he’s one of Arsene’s best ever signings, played in Theo Walcott, who scooted beyond the defence and finished confidently in to the near post.
Walcott and Gervinho were ultimately too much for Udinese to cope with. The summer additions of Gervinho, Chamberlain, Ryo and Campbell suggested Arsene was keen to provide an objection of pace, and these two provided that in spades. They also allowed us to recapture what was one a crucial component of our game: the lightening counter-attack.
There were other impressive showings: Sczcesny was commanding, Vermaelen committed, and Tomas Rosicky put in a brilliant second-half shift as a ball-winning midfielder.
Congratulations to this group of players for triumphing in the face of adversity. With their backs to the wall, a mishmash team pulled the manager out of an ominous hole. I hope he’s wise enough to know they won’t be able to do so every week – either domestically or in Europe, where we find ourselves in a challenging group with Marseille, Olympiakos, and Dortmund. These are good, committed players. But to flourish, they need reinforcements. With Champions League football in the bag, we should have both the means and the might to lure them.