Picture by Dannymx from Flickr
Arsenal begin their latest Champions League campaign with a tough two legged play-off against Italian 4th place qualifiers – Udinese. This is Arsenal’s 14th consecutive Champions League qualification – an impressive statistic and a reminder for Wenger’s critics within the club’s fan base, of the consistency he has brought to the club despite being surrounded by some of the toughest domestic competition in Europe. This season they will need to overcome a play-off in order to qualify for the lucrative group stages, and this will pose an early test of the mental steel in this new look Arsenal side.
Whilst reflecting on Arsenal’s loss of Fabregas to Barcelona, it’s worth sparing a thought for Udinese who lost Alexis Sanchez to the Catalan giants much earlier in the transfer window. ”But Arsenal will be without Nasri as well!” Again, Udinese can trump this with Gokhan Inler having made his way to rivals Napoli (who finished third in Serie A to qualify automatically for the group stages). Add to this the departure of defender Christian Zapata, and it starts to look as bleak for Udinese as it does for Arsenal at the moment. The tie could well be decided by one of the two players these teams look to when in need of inspiration – Robin Van Persie for Arsenal, and Antonio Di Natale for Udinese.
This match up, and the tie between Lyon and Rubin Kazan who both participated in last season’s group stages, will give fans some early Champions League knock-out entertainment.
Marouane Chamakh gets a chance to shine in the first leg, as Van Persie is suspended, and the Arsenal front three of himself, Gervinho, and Walcott caused early problems for a seemingly unprepared Udinese defence. Walcott in particular showed some early spark, latching on to an Aaron Ramsey cross for an early Arsenal goal. Then Udinese woke up, with Di Natale hitting the bar with a long dipping free kick from distance.
Both teams then took to making their defensive lines as unorganised as possible, and played on the counter attack, with both linesmen being tested on their ability to look at two places at the same time. Peripheral vision some call it. Direct running from Gervinho at one end, and crafty intelligent runs from Di Natale at the other, meant the Emirates class spectator began to get something approaching their moneys worth.
Sky then became preoccupied with Arsene Wenger trying to communicate with his players, as he took full advantage of Pat Rice’s telepathic skills.
We’re hardly BBC live updates. Imagine getting paid to sit and write about a football match that you’re watching for free?
After a couple of forced defensive changes for Arsenal in the second half – both Kieron Gibbs, and his replacement Johan Djourou suffered injuries – their back four with new boy Jenkinson in a left back role came under spells of pressure from the Udinesi, but Arsenal still looked dangerous on the break. Any slight movement from Arsene Wenger in his seat in the stand continued to be construed by Sky as sending messages to Pat Rice on the bench. Although our sources confirmed that he was messaging Joey Barton on Twitter.
Di Natale forced a save from Szczesny with another well aimed free kick, and the Udinese team poo’d their pants as the referee pointed to the spot for a goal kick, after an excellent tackle in the box from Joel Ekstrand.
A mazy run from Gervinho followed by a nice through ball set up Walcott for a shot which was saved well by Handanovic guarding the posts for Udinese.
On the whole, Arsenal should be pleased with a win, and will hope for an away goal in the second leg, but Udinese will be disappointed that theirs didn’t come, despite causing Arsenal problems.