What a night, what a performance. The boys delivered what was required. The circumstances leading up to the game was not ideal but the team dug deep and produced a performance that will worth every bit of praise thrown their way. It wouldn’t be Arsenal without a few anxious moments along the way but ultimately the qualification to the group stage of Champions League is all that matters.
Arsene Wenger started with the best available team that he had, choosing to go for a bit more steel in the midfield. Emmanuel Frimpong was given another chance to shine and he was slotted alongside Alex Song in midfield. While Bacary Sagna retained the left back berth despite Armand Traore being available.
The match started at frantic pace with both sides having the opportunity to open the scoring in the early minutes. Great stuff to watch for the neutrals but I’m sure any Arsenal fan would tell you that it was not very good for the heart. There were gaps in both midfields, which was why it was almost a training match of defence versus attack.
There was a fear that Song would see Frimpong behind him and decide to show his attacking side and to a certain extend, that was what happened. His tendency to drift forward was not helping Frimpong, who at times was defending against a few Udinese players. Second balls were being won by Udinese and Antonio Di Natale kept finding space in our backline.
Gervinho’s direct running created the most clear cut opening for Arsenal in the first half. His dribbling inside of the opposition box caused confusion and despite the number of bodies inside the box, he managed to find the onrushing Theo Walcott. The English winger did not pick his spot well and his shot was saved by Samir Handanovic. The rebound also went straight at the keeper.
6 minutes before the end of the first half, Udinese drew first blood. Johan Djourou was at fault for ball watching and allowed Di Natale to drift away from him. It was a perfectly taken looping header from the diminutive Udinese captain. Wojciech Szczesny had no chance as the ball hit the post and went in. We’re staring at extra time if this was the final score.
Half time came and Wenger made his first change. I guessed he felt that we needed a change in focus and prefer to find that away goal rather than just depend on defending. On came Tomas Rosicky for Frimpong and it was a move that worked. Rosicky did sat back to protect the defence but had the vision to find that quick pass to set our attack on their way.
10 minutes was all it took for Arsenal to restore their lead in the tie. Gervinho was up to his usual tricks on the left and this time, his pass found his Robin Van Persie. The captain easily sidefooted the ball into the net. Good break, good build-up but more importantly it means Udinese had to score 2 goals now.
They nearly found their way back immediately. It was the same thing which has haunted us in the past, conceding just after we scored. Luckily for us, that didn’t transpired. Thomas Vermaelen was adjudged to have handled inside the area and the referee acting on cue of the official behind the goal, gave the penalty. It was the defining moment of the match. Dangerous Di Natale stepped up to take it but was foiled by Szczesny. David Seaman himself would’ve been proud of that save.
We rode our luck on that one but credit to the players, they never allowed the home side another sniff at goal. In fact, we went on to score another to win the game. As Udinese held a high line, Sagna set Walcott on his way to goal. There was no catching the speedster. I loved the fact that Walcott didn’t try to curl the ball into the bottom far corner and instead chose to go for the near post.
From then on, we were in firm control of the match. Udinese needed another 3 goals to qualify and that was never going to come. That error that lead to the opening goal in the first half apart, Djourou was a solid presence alongside the ever impressive Vermaelen.
Carl Jenkinson will look back at his performance tonight and be very pleased with himself. A 19-year-old playing starting in his first Champions League game and in Italy, no least. That itself can be very daunting given the task at hand. But he never looked out of place. Cleared when he had to and played the pass when he could find him team mate.
It was also good to note RvP’s performance tonight. Not as static as he was in the other 2 competitive games that he has played in this season. Far more mobile and dropping deep to get involved. When he stared to do that, Gervinho and Walcott seize the opportunity to get further up front and further in-field. At times, we were almost playing a 4-3-1-2 formation.
The supposedly biggest game of Wenger’s Arsenal career is over and done with. The team provided a performance that’s worth reminding people that we are still a big club. Wenger will no doubt be hearten by that. However, now is not the time to rest on our laurels. Wenger will have to use this result as a springboard for the season and that cannot be done without further recruitments.
Well done boys. Next move Arsene Wenger.