Arsenal 1-0 Udinese: Gunners face nervy 2nd leg
Published 21:39 16/08/11 By John Cross
Theo Walcott helped Arsenal turn a new page last night after a difficult chapter in the club's history.
Walcott has been critical of Fabio Capello in his new autobiography but proved his own point with a precious goal in Arsenal's £25m Champions League play-off.
Last night was more of a tense thriller than horror story but you get the feeling this tale is far from over as Arsenal only take a slender lead to Italy next week.
But it was a memorable night for Walcott who proved a point to England boss Capello and his assistant Franco Baldini who looked on from the directors' box at the Emirates.
Walcott's precious fourth minute winner was enough to give Arsenal victory and the winger duly celebrated with a mock golf swing dedicated to one of his golfing pals.
Walcott, who got the phone call from Capello about his axe from last summer's World Cup squad while on the golf course, was a man on a mission last night.
It has been a summer of discontent and unrest on the terraces and yet this is Walcott's big chance to help fill the void left by Cesc Fabregas with Samir Nasri set to follow the Arsenal captain out of the exit door.
That left Arsenal desperately short of experience and European know-how, especially with Arsene Wenger banished to the directors' box because of a touchline ban with Robin van Persie also suspended.
Arsenal boss Wenger kept having to make his coach Boro Primorac, sat next to him, dial an emergency number to assistant Pat Rice to instruct defensive changes.
Left back Kieran Gibbs hobbled off at half time with a hamstring injury after enduring a torrid 45 minutes, then Johan Djourou lasted only 11 minutes before getting injured and rookie Carl Jenkinson then filled in admirably at left back.
It hardly helped matters or Arsenal's nerves and Wenger looked a tortured soul among the prawn sandwich brigade.
Time and again, keeper Wojciech Szczesny came to Wenger's rescue with a string of brilliant saves as the tension and pressure weighed heavily on Arsenal.
Walcott's early goal should have settled those nerves but it seems like an uncomfortable time to be an Arsenal fan right now and Wenger's men rarely offered much in the way of reassurance.
Arsenal's early lead should have been that platform but this summer's unrest has clearly taken its toll.
Bacary Sagna started the move for Arsenal's opener, his pass sending Aaron Ramsey scampering down the right and his near post cross was perfect for Walcott.
Walcott, who claimed in pre-season he wants a chance at centre forward, showed a striker's instincts as he got in front of his defender and turned the ball home from close range.
Arsenal have made easy work of these play-offs in the past, scoring 21 goals and conceding only two in eight two legged ties against Sparta Prague, Dynamo Zagreb, Celtic and FC Twente.
But Udinese are clearly tougher opponents catching Arsenal at a good time. Udinese's veteran striker and captain Antonio Di Natale curled a 12th minute free kick against the bar from long range to serve an early warning.
Arsenal failed to heed the danger signs and Alex Song conceded possession on the edge of Udinese's box, allowed Pablo Armero to run clear between Sagna and Gibbs only for Szczesny to make a smart save.
Song chased back to help make amends with a timely block from Mauricio Isla's follow-up shot.
Arsenal looked vulnerable and open at the back and Di Natale pounced on Gibbs' poor clearance but the Italy striker hit the outside of the post.
Wenger looked a worried man as the TV cameras panned to the directors' box at half time and you would have thought Arsenal would tighten up after the break.
But Arsenal were forced into defensive reshuffle after defensive reshuffle and Udinese enjoyed several second half chances only to be denied by the brilliance of Szczesny.
Even at 21, Szczesny looks a proven Champions League keeper as, despite the turmoil in front of him, the giant Pole stood tall.
Szczesny kept Arsenal ahead and Walcott nearly doubled their lead in injury time when his curling shot produced a stunning save from Udinese keeper Samir Handanovic.
It leaves Arsenal with a slender lead to take to Italy next week and Wenger can only hope that it will be enough.
Arsenal: Szczesny 8; Sagna 8, Koscielny 7, Vermaelen 7, Gibbs 5 (Djourou, 46 (Jenkinson, 56, 7)); Song 6, Ramsey 7, Rosicky 6; Walcott 8, Gervinho 6, Chamakh 5.
Udinese: Hamdanovic 7; Ekstrand 7, Benatia 7, Danilo 7, Neuton 6 (Pasquale, 59, 6); Agyemang-Badu 6, Asamoah 7; Isla 7, Pinzi 6, Armero 7; Di Natale 7.
Man of the match: Theo Walcott. Scored, showed great pace and was a man on a mission
Villain of the match: Kieran Gibbs. Hooked at half time after being exposed defensively