Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

James Lawton: Arsenal put smile back on Wenger's face

Arsène Wenger embraces his assistant, Pat Rice, after the final whistle last night
Arsène Wenger embraces his assistant, Pat Rice, after the final whistle last night

There were lines of strain on the smile of Arsène Wenger but it was still a smile – and it had every right to be.

The club he once made such a glowing example of some of football's best values could well have been twisting on a freshly-mounted spit this morning.



Everything he has come to stand for down the years might have been held up to fresh ridicule if the club had trailed out of the Champions League last night, £20m poorer and faced with the most basic questions about their future.

Under such ferocious pressure, could Wenger glean a decent performance from his young and fractured team? Yes, he could. The defence, it has to be said, was still a matter of chance and speculation but when Arsenal had the ball, as they did most of the time, they still looked like Arsenal.



They still moved as though football is a challenge of grace as much as vigour and if there wasn't much change here, there was still a sense that the assaults on their confidence over the last night had strengthened them at some potentially critical places.



It meant that the preliminary report of Arsenal's death was somewhat premature, especially with vital signs in the matter of fluent attacking football. However, Theo Walcott missed the chance to put his team on to a relatively easy street and then Antonio di Natale, a decade further down the football road, punished brilliantly this example of the sometimes futile eagerness of youth.



Arsenal's midfield was non-existent as Udinese broke quickly and Giampiero Pinzi floated the ball to the head of Di Natale so accurately he might have been armed with a homing device. Thomas Vermaelen, who has become such a symbol of professional resilience these last few days of fast accumulating doubt, couldn't get nearly close enough to prevent the Italian veteran arching the ball beyond Wojciech Szczesny.



The young goalkeeper has so often been somewhere around exhibit A in the indictment of Wenger's failure to adequately address defensive weaknesses but he had no reason to punish himself on this occasion – a fact which he had presumably absorbed by the time he saved superbly a second-half penalty kick by Di Natale which might have returned the Arsenal manager to the stocks.



If this, though, was not the night when Wenger would walk free and be re-anointed as a master of all the arts of modern football, it was one of more than considerable courage. It carried the conviction of a man who plainly will never lack the nerve to challenge his his critics.



No, when new signing Gervinho fashioned the chance for Robin van Persie to put Arsenal back ahead on aggregate, and Walcott redeemed his earlier frenzy with a goal of immaculate nerve, this wasn't some great lighting up of the Arsenal sky. But it was a statement of some considerable import – and more composure than could have been expected in the wake of the early season going and the defections of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.



You didn't have to be filled with either excessive pessimism – or even a hint of malice – to believe that this was a night that could have carried the most destructive message thus far on the fate of another Arsenal season and Wenger's chances of regaining his old authority.



When Di Natale made his breakthrough, when Udinese seemed content to cut through Arsenal's defence on the break, once again there were significant reasons to fear the worst. Wenger, looking an urbane figure again and some distance from a Gallic version of Basil Fawlty, could not disguise some lingering concerns but deep down he must have felt like a man who had preserved the value of some of his deepest instincts.



There could be no easy verdicts — and still less bursts of the old triumphalism. The challenges will come much more severely than from a passably gifted, quick team on the fringe of the Serie A elite, but then Arsenal had a hard imperative last night.



They had to get more than a result. They had to inject some fresh belief and when the new crisis came they were more than equal to it.



It was not a drum roll but a quiet and often rhythmic statement of defiance to the worst forecasts of a bleak future. Arsenal needed some starting point, some anchoring in old belief in their destiny as a still great club.



This was something in that direction. It had sparks of wit and regained confidence and some of it was worthy of that brief smile across the most troubled countenance in all of football. Wenger had no reason to be ecstatic. But he was certainly to believe that it was time to breathe again.

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