Arsenal 1 Udinese 0
And so it was back to the Home of Football for a competitive game for the first time since May. The term "competitive game" is perhaps something of a misnomer; this was our August Cup Final. Failure to qualify for this year`s Champions League writes an estimated £20m straight off of the bottom line of our books. There`s really no other place for that money to be taken from than our TPA. The supporters that have continued faith in the manager use the Champions League qualification card in defence of Arsene. For the owners, the fans and the manager, this tie is inestimably huge. We`ve come into it with a squad thinner than fag paper and beset with injury and suspension.
This cocktail of uncertainty was always likely to result in a nervy evening- and so it proved. Though after just 4 minutes, the Gunners provided the absolute dream start. Bacary Sagna found Aaron Ramsey prowling into space on the right; the Welshman looked up to find both Walcott and Gervinho bursting into the box. Ramsey`s low cross was deftly turned into the net by Theo Walcott on the front post. A superb finish and one I thought would settle the nerves of the team and the support. That feeling was magnified when Arsenal might have doubled their lead two minutes later; Koscielny flicked Walcott`s corner on towards the back post, but Gervinho miscued his volley in oceans of space with Chamakh`s movement towards the ball putting him off.
But the Gunners` composure deserted them and Udinese gradually began to control the game from midfield. With Rosicky blatantly not fit and Song having to cover his full back in lieu of either Walcott or Gervinho doing so, Udinese were finding time on the ball easy to come by in midfield. Concession of a cheap foul on the edge of the box nearly led to an Udinese equaliser. In an attempt to alleviate Arsenal`s set piece woes, it was notable on Saturday that Szczesny was edging off his line quite early from set pieces. Not incorrect at all, Seaman did this for his whole career. But di Natale nearly caught Szczesny out with a looping free kick that crashed the cross bar.
Arsenal very nearly conceded a quite farcical equaliser, when Asamoah robbed Song of possession on the edge of the Udinese box; he was able to skip past the entire Arsenal back four on the halfway line with one heavy touch, leaving him sprinting through on goal. But Szczesny stood up and beat out Asamoah`s attempt. The rebound found its way to Isla on the edge of the box and Alex Song threw himself at the shot to block. The first half continued to make for anxious viewing and di Natale smuggled a shot from inside the area which clipped the outside of the post. At half time, the folly of relying on Kieran Gibbs as our first choice left back was exposed. 135 minutes into the season. He required a fitness test to play against Newcastle having picked up a knock in the friendly against Benfica. He lasted 45 minutes into his second match. With Armand Traore injured playing for the Reserves, Thomas Vermaelen was left to man the left back slot.
Arsenal looked even less cohesive in the second half, which Udinese controlled. The otherwise outstanding Koscielny lost possession on the precipice of his own penalty area, Badu looked to be in on goal, but substitute Johan Djourou slid in to make a quite excellent block. In doing so, he pulled his hamstring. You have to question how rigorous his half time warm up was. It certainly didn`t look to taxing from where I was sat. I`m not convinced it was communicated to him that he might have to come on. Usually, you can tell if somebody is going to come on for the second half during the half time kick about as they tend to stretch alone. Udinese continued to peg Arsenal back, though the resistance of the Gunners back line reduced them to efforts from distance. Pablo Amero`s strike rattled the stanchion behind the goal.
Meanwhile Asamoah dug out a fulminating strike from the corner of the area which whistled just over the angle of Szczesny`s crossbar. The Gunners did briefly threaten on the counter when Ramsey`s ball found the run of Theo Walcott, but he scuffed his finish from the eighteen yard line. Arsenal were seriously struggling to retain the ball as Frimpong replaced the ragged Rosicky. Chamakh`s terrible lack of form saw him produce a passable invisible man impression upfront, leaving an already impoverished midfield with little to no outlet. Frimpong`s introduction yielded the concession of two free kicks in little under thirty seconds, the second of which was positioned twenty five yards from the Arsenal goal. Di Natale again looked for a bending effort, but Szczesny anticipated well to beat it around the post.
However, the Gunners might have nabbed an undeserved, but very welcome two goal lead. Gervinho toiled at the outskirts of Udinese`s penalty box, showing good feet to then slip the ball into the area for the onrushing Walcott. His bending strike seemed destined for the bottom corner, until Handanovic stuck out his left arm to brilliantly tip around the post. All in all, the tie was never going to be put to bed inside the 90 minutes. One has to be pleased that, once again, Arsenal`s centre halves and goalkeeper showed none of the fragility that begun to dog the team in the last quarter of last season. Another clean sheet and, despite Udinese`s territorial dominance, the majority of their second half efforts were from range.
However, the Arsenal midfield looked completely over run at times and the attack, with Chamakh "spearheading" and Walcott continuing his wild swings from sublime to ridiculous in a matter of minutes, one has to worry about the cohesion of the team. Udinese were worth a draw. That we`ve arrived at a tie of this importance and had to blood a central midfielder with 6 minutes of league football under his belt and a left back whose last game was at right back in League One is quite troubling. If the squad is not replenished with further investment to the tune of at least two, probably three players in the next fortnight, then you are left with the distinct impression that Robin van Persie is going to have to be a one man attack this year. Chamakh really needs a goal, but for that to happen, he needs to drag his carcass into the penalty area once in a while. Something he seems loathe to do. The creative element of the team has not been up to scratch for the last two games. The defensive one very much has; but the club will garner no credit for that, because it doesn`t chime with the press line that Arsenal need Giant Haystacks at centre half. We have a result and a vital clean sheet, but on and off the pitch, the manager has left himself a lot of work to do and little time to do it. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN(c), 28.GIBBS (20.Djourou H/T, Jenkinson '54), 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY, 7.ROSICKY (26.Frimpong '71), 14.WALCOTT, 27.GERVINHO, 29.CHAMAKH. Unused: 15.Chamberlain, 21.Fabianski, 23.Arshavin, 52.Bendtner.
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