Champions League Qualifier: Arsenal grateful for precious lead over Udinese
Arsenal 1 Udinese 0: It says everything you need to know about Arsene Wenger's team at the moment that a lacklustre one-goal victory over the fourth-best team in Serie A was met with some relief last night, at a club that has learned over the last two years not to take anything for granted.
They started like Champions League old hands but — without the suspended Robin Van Persie and Samir Nasri and the injured Jack Wilshere — they limped home glad not to have conceded an away goal for the return leg a week today in north-east Italy.
With the players that Wenger has coming back into this team and a one-goal lead it should be enough to see his team into the draw for the Champions League group stages but, well, this is Arsenal in 2011 when events have a habit of spiralling out of control.
Last night they lost both Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou, his half-time replacement, to injury which is a worry with Liverpool at home on Saturday, and will only serve to put more pressure on Wenger to sign a defender this month. They could really have done with a second goal to give them a bit of room for error in Italy — Walcott should have scored again in injury-time — but as usual next Wednesday will probably be a pretty anxious affair.
The Arsenal manager, serving a touchline ban last night, may well attract the censure of Uefa for blatantly passing messages to his assistant Boro Primorac who was on the phone to the bench for much of the game. At the moment, that is probably the least of Wenger's worries.
The new era, without Cesc Fabregas, and with the suspended Nasri unlikely ever to return, began much as the old one ended. They can play some good stuff, this Arsenal team, even without the biggest names of their last six years but they are also perennially in danger of losing their way.
So it was last night when, in the early stages of the first half, Wenger's team looked as if they might take Udinese apart bit-by-bit.
The Italian team's left side was all but conceded to their hosts who made the opening stage a misery for the left-back Neuton. It was from there that Arsenal's goal came after just four minutes and then they looked like they might run away with it.
Alex Song began the move with a nicely-judged chip down the wing and into the stride of Bacary Sagna who had plenty of time to pick out his cross from the right.
He knew where to put it because, as Walcott ran into the area, the winger was pointing to the space behind the defender. Walcott met it first time, steering the ball in at the near post.
It was only Walcott's fifth goal of the calendar year and it was scored in front of Fabio Capello, the England manager who lost faith in the player before last summer's World Cup finals.
Early on last night, Walcott looked like the player Arsenal, and Capello, had always hoped he would be. But then, as was the case with so many of his team-mates, his pace slipped and Arsenal found themselves back on a relatively even footing.
The star in Udinese's firmament is Antonio di Natale, the top goalscorer in Serie A for two seasons, and he clipped the crossbar with a brilliantly struck free-kick on 12 minutes.
There was nothing fundamentally wrong with Arsenal in that first half, they just lacked the kind of energy and control to convince you that they belong on a different plain to Udinese who have qualified for only two Champions League competitions in the past, as opposed to their opponents who have been in every one since 1997.
Consigned to the stand because of his touchline ban earned during the Champions League elimination at Barcelona's hands in the Nou Camp, the Arsenal manager looked anguished, while alongside him his assistant Primorac phoned the bench with instructions. They had been forced into bringing Gibbs off at half-time; he had succumbed to yet another injury, this time a hamstring, and in his place came Djourou which meant Thomas Vermaelen was moved out to left-back.
It was far from ideal to have Arsenal's most commanding centre-back out of position but he was soon back in place. Within ten minutes of the half starting, Djourou limped off and Karl Jenkinson, the £1m signing from Charlton Athletic, was on in his place for his senior debut. Jenkinson's natural position is right-back but in this mixed-up, injury-prone team he was obliged to do a job at left-back.
Even so, there were decent performances from Vermaelen and Koscielny to hold Udinese at bay.