FT:- 1-2(Di Natale 39; Van Persie 55, Walcott 69)
Ref:- Olegario Benquerenca, POR
Arsenal:- Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Djourou, Jenkinson, Walcott (Arshavin 90), Ramsey, Alex Song, Frimpong (Rosicky 45), Van Persie (c), Gervinho (Traore 86). Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Miquel, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamakh
Bookings:- Vermaelen (57, Dissent), Sagna (71, Foul), Walcott (72, Simulation), Jenkinson (74, Mistaken Foul)
Udinese:- Handanovic, Larangeira, Neuton, Mehdi Benatia (Pasquale, 85), Ekstrand, Armero, Isla (Denis 82), Agyemang-Badu, Asamoah, Pinzi (Fabbrini 62), Di Natale (c). Subs Not Used: Belardi, Basta, Abdi, Doubai
Bookings:- Isla (51, Dissent), Mehdi Benatia (71, Foul), Fabbrini (87, Foul)
The continuing progress toward world-class talent of both Theo Walcott and Wojciech Szczesny, saw Arsenal qualify with relative ease for the Champions’ League group stage, away to Udinese.
Having just had the sale of Samir Nasri to Man City confirmed earlier in the day and Koscielny ruled out through injury, Arsenal could have been forgiven for feeling that the fates were really against them before a ball was even kicked. Wenger saw fit to stick with the youngsters Jenkinson and Frimpong (despite the latters sending off at the weekend) who did so well under pressure in last week’s second-half. The return of Van Persie, the new club captain, was also a major positive. Udinese could name an unchanged starting eleven for the second week running, with their performance in the first leg giving Guidolin every reason to believe that they can break the determined, but inexperienced, Arsenal rearguard at least once, on home soil.
Much like last time out the game started at a frenetic pace, with both Armero (my MOM from last week’s tie) and Gervinho causing major problems for the respective defences. Arsenal’s direct play mirrored that of last week’s opening half hour, with the extra fluidity of Van Persie completing a dangerous attacking quartet (also comprising Gervinho, Ramsey and Walcott). Young Frimpong was also showing why Wenger may not have to worry about a quality holding midfielder in the remaining week of the transfer market as he consistently broke up Udinese’s play in the final third of the field, already showing a greater maturity than in his two previous outings.
Despite having the bulk of first-half possession Arsenal’s attacking threat was nowhere near as dangerous as Di Natale’s, alone, for Udinese. The extraordinarily open first thirty minutes put pay to the notion that these two sides would be playing cautious football, with both manager’s well aware how dangerous conceding a goal could be. Arsenal were moving the ball beautifully across the middle of the park, but would frequently run into defensive dead-ends when trying to run the ball down the flanks. Udinese were ceding possession often, but nonetheless created plenty of dangerous opportunities through the controlled passing of Agyemang-Badu, who really shone on the night for the Italians.
The best of the early chances fell to Udinese, with Badu finding Di Natale on the edge of the box. The two-time Serie A top goalscorer pulled away from Sagna before drifting a high cross toward the back left post where an unlucky Armero saw his header clip the right post.
Walcott was struggling to keep himself onside, but continued to probe away on the shoulder of the last defender, or alternating with Gervinho and Ramsey along either flank. As with last week, as the half wore on Udinese began to look the more threatening and Arsenal started to play one-too-many passes in promising areas of the pitch. Di Natale once more seemed a more assured and likely goalscorer, striking Szczesny’s right-post from Isla’s lovely measured pass across the penalty area. Badu was providing the foundations for much of Udinese’s attacking play, as well as doing an exceptional job of repelling Arsenal’s counters.
With the youngsters Jenkinson and Frimpong just beginning to look a little callow in their positional play, Udinese broke quickly and incisively with Benatia’s run out of defence catching the Arsenal midfield unawares and Pinzi found acres of space to drop a lovely floated pass onto the head of Di Natale, who had peeled off the deep-lying Arsenal defence. Di Natale’s header was perfectly weighted to drop over Szczesny and in off the right post.
Udinese could now sense that Arsenal were feeling vulnerable and the final minutes of the half were all about whether Van Persie could get the players to regroup before the Italians grabbed another. Despite a lack of discipline becoming increasingly evident, Arsenal managed to limit Udinese to just one more clear sight of goal, when Armero blazed a shot over from about 13 yards.
At half-time Wenger opted to remove Frimpong from the fray, which was surely no reflection on the excellent work the young midfielder had put in to break-up Udinese’s attack. His replacement was Rosicky, who had managed to put in a sterling shift for 45 minutes of last week’s match, before tiring dramatically. This was a risky move by Wenger, because although Rosicky offered an increased attacking threat, he would also leave Djourou and Vermaelen far more exposed at the back, even if Song were to drop in as a shielding player.
However, as has occurred so often before, Wenger was vindicated within minutes of the restart. Udinese managed to get themselves all hot and bothered about an innocuous challenge on Isla by Jenkinson. When the young fullback didn’t then play the ball into touch Asmoah charged him off the ball in a dangerous position down the right flank. Udinese appeared to have completely lost their discipline, with Isla being booked for dissent and Asmoah fortunate not to join him. Van Persie finally delivered the free-kick in from the right, only for Song to miss his header completely. However, just moments later Gervinho went on a languid, mazy run into the left side of the Udinese penalty area, rekindling memories of Kanu. Having taking the fullback out of the game Gervinho slid a lovely ball across the penalty area, for Van Persie to slot home coolly.
Arsenal were now ahead on away goals and Udinese needed to find two goals to qualify, but almost immediately Di Natale delivered a dangerous corner across the six yard box and Thomas Vermaelen had to handle it to prevent a goal chance. Vermaelen was booked for protesting his innocence, despite the fact replays clearly showed he steered the ball away from danger with his upper arm. Di Natale immediately placed the ball on the spot and struck a powerful penalty high and to the left of Szczesny. Miraculously the Polish goalkeeper got across to the strike and managed to lift it over the bar with his outstretched left palm. This fantastic save seemed to immediately deflate both Di Natale and Udinese, with Arsenal looking increasingly dominant in the centre of the park.
Arsenal were assured of their place in the group stages of the Champions’ League when Sagna broke through the Udinese midfield and made himself available for a neat one-two with Walcott. Walcott took Sagna’s return pass and scythed past the stranded Benatia before burying the ball confidently past Handanovic – who had done as much as anyone to keep Udinese in the tie. Walcott’s goal was really the result of his unsettling positional switches, that left the Udinese defence unable to read where exactly he might turn up next. This fluid positional switching, particularly amongst Arsenal’s front four players, was essentially how Arsenal managed to keep hold of the ball for long periods of the match and was a considerable contributing factor to their eventual victory.
The closing stages of the match saw a series of unnecessary bookings and a bit of frustration creeping in to Udinese’s game. Di Natale continued to try to find a way through the Arsenal back line, but the likes of Song, Jenkinson and Djourou looked increasingly comfortable in possession. Late on Robin Van Persie began to showboat, much to the Udinese fans disgust, but the Arsenal captain could be allowed this touch of arrogance, as his team had put on a display that shows there may well be an exciting future ahead post-Fabregas and Nasri.
My MOM:- Theo Walcott – Theo has gone from being a promising, but erratic, talent, to being one of Arsenal and England’s most exciting players. Although he still manages to waste a few chances and occasionally strays offside, his overall attacking abilities were there for all to see in Arsenal’s second goal. With ferocious pace and an excellent positional sense Walcott was a constant threat to Udinese’s back line, particularly their vulnerable fullbacks. Gervinho and Udinese’s Badu also had an excellent match, as did both goalkeepers, but Walcott’s willingness to move into the spaces where he could offer most attacking threat marked this out as one of his most mature performances in an Arsenal shirt. It is just a shame that toward the end of the match he started to engage in a little bit of gamesmanship.
And Another Thing…:- Imagine my surprise when I saw erstwhile Scouse controversialist Joey Barton wearing the yellow captain’s armband and leading the line for Udinese tonight. What with his extended stay in Geordieland, as well as his sojourn at her Majesty’s pleasure, our boy Joey clearly loves his black and white stripes.