A few hours after a certain Samir Nasri was unveiled by his new employers at Eastlands, our moment of truth arrived as we kicked off the second leg of our Champions League qualifier in Northern Italy. Holding a 1-0 lead and sporting a clean sheet from the first leg is a good place to be, but not at all a secure one.
Memories of how Udinese – who’s league season has not yet started – fashioned several good chances (particularly through DiNatale) in that first leg served as a reminder that this tie is far from over, especially as the decisive second leg is on Udinese’s patch…
While the build-up was dominated by Nas’ impending transfer, there was also plenty of speculation regarding who would/would not be available. In his Tuesday afternoon presser, Arsene confirmed that JD and Traore were good to go and that Rosicky would make at the least the bench. Hopes were raised that Jack would recover in time to make the trip and perhaps play a part; as he suffered a setback, he was ruled out and may face an extended period sidelined.
So we lined up Szczesny, Bac, TV, JD, Jenks, Frimpong, Ramsey, Song, Gervinho, Robin, and Theo.
Fab, Traore, Miquel, Rosicky, Arsh, OC, and Chamakh comprised our bench.
The inclusion of Frimpong and Song together was particularly interesting, suggesting an emphasis on solidifying the midfield – an area where Udinese arguably outplayed us last week. The task was simple: win and go through, draw and go through.
A quick start was key to our first leg win, and we started in a similar bright vein, with last Tuesday’s goal scorer (Theo) once again involved early, forcing Handanovic to save just a couple of minutes in. A couple of minutes later, a Ramsey shot from the edge of the box was put behind for a corner which Theo took, but was unable to put a good ball in.
While Udinese had seen little of the ball up to this point, they quickly built an attack and DiNatale smartly finished the move off but he was rightly give offside. This provided a reminder of the danger Udinese posed.
The first 20 minutes saw us move the ball effectively, particularly through Theo and Gervinho, and create the better chances. In once such move, Robin fed Theo with a great pass, but the latter was already offside when he collected it. A few minutes later, Robin headed over from a good Gervinho cross. Udinese immediately countered, and DiNatale got a shot off, forcing Szczesny to save low.
On 25, we had a huge let off, as Isla was given far too much room down the right, crossing for DiNatale, who whacked another low shot off the post. But as the half progressed, Udinese saw more of the ball and were able to slow the tempo down.
Just before the half hour mark, Robin got a sniff inside the Udinese box, but couldn’t make a clean connection and sent the shot high over goal. A few minutes later, both Theo and Robin had chances to extend our lead and get a priceless away goal in the bargain but Handanovic did well to deny them both.
Six minutes before half-time the goal Udinese had threatened since the first leg finally arrived. This time it was Pinzi allowed way too much time and space. He put in a cross with DiNatale met with a firm header over Szczesny and into our net. So back to square one…
We were shaken, but managed the final chance of the half – in stoppage time – as Song headed a Robin corner into the side netting. The whistle went, with 45 (possibly more) minutes remaining and all to play for…
We kicked the second half off with one change, Rosicky on for Frimpong.
As we were unable to keep the door closed in the first half, the situation now dictated we needed at least one goal and had to bring someone on who could create one. A few minutes in, Song became the first player booked, for a challenge on Pinzi.
We then had a bit of argy-bargy when launching an attack with an Udinese player grounded. When play stopped there was a bit of shoving and posturing, with Isla eventually booked for the home side. Our free kick came to nothing. Theo followed that up with a tame shot at Handanovic from our next attack…
While we had not finished any of these moves, they did build up early momentum and ten minutes after the break, we cashed in. Gervinho got free once again and pulled the ball back for Robin to smash into the net. The away goal leveled the scores on the night, gave us a 2-1 aggregate lead and perhaps most importantly, was worth double as an away goal.
The question then came – as earlier on – could we keep the lead?
Two minutes later, Udinese earned a corner. DiNatale took it, Danilo tried to get his head to the ball, but whiffed. The referee suddenly blew for a penalty and booked Vermaelen.
It took a few minutes to sort everything out but the referee awarded the penalty for a TV handball during the corner. Seeing it again, it looked quite harsh to me and I thought there was also a foul on TV as he went for the ball but the referee’s decision is the only one that counts.
DiNatale took the penalty, striking it well but Szczesny quickly got across to his right, batting the ball away to keep it out!
That save lifted our players and seemed to visibly deflate Udinese and we re-asserted control. Ramsey burst into the box and went down under what looked like some contact but the referee did not give anything. Nevertheless, we went right at Udinese, kept the ball and kept them under pressure, looking better than we had at any point during this season.
Udinese made their first change on 63, bringing Fabbrini on for Pinzi but we were in the ascendancy and this did not stall our momentum. Gervinho then forced Handanovic to save his low shot but another Arsenal goal was coming and it duly arrived in our next attack.
Sagna sprung Theo, who went clear, drew Handanovic and finished calmly to give us a 3-1 aggregate lead, and 2-1 lead on the night.
Even after extending our aggregate lead, we still looked for more and should have had the chance to go further ahead 20 minutes from the end. As soft as the penalty given against us was, the one we were denied was almost as obvious as possible. Robin played Theo, and Benatia whacked the latter in the head with an elbow. Probably unintentional but an obvious foul, to everyone except the officials. To make matters worse, Theo was booked for taking exception.
At this point, we started to lose composure a bit, and Jenks then saw yellow for kicking the ball away after a foul was awarded against us but we quickly calmed down, reasserted ourselves, and controlled play. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, we continued to try and extend the lead, with Ramsey and Theo both working Handanovic. At the other end, Szczesny punched a DiNatale free kick clear.
Four minutes from time, Arsene brought Traore on to replace Gervinho, who had an excellent game. Arsh replaced Theo in the first minute of stoppage time and we comfortably saw about the three added minutes. Right at the death, first Robin and then Traore had chances to extend the lead – and perhaps make the scoreline a bit more indicative of our second half performance – but Handanovic denied them both.
No matter, as we completed the job and now await tomorrow’s draw to see who we get in the group stages.
I won’t argue that after all that has – and has not – occurred at our club (particularly during the past couple of weeks) it is easy to paint the picture of us as a club in crisis. Perhaps it is too easy; it makes for juicy headlines, sure but it also underestimates the resolve and determination of our players.
I think this may have been an instance where the constant piling on from the past several days galvanized everyone.
They certainly responded with a performance and result, in a high stakes situation against a quality opponent – what more do you want?
That is not to say everything is suddenly rosy at Arsenal FC – far from it. We are still short (by Arsene’s own admission) in at least one area (I think more than one); our depth is still compromised by injuries, and three key players (Gerv, Song, and Frim) return to the penalty box for the next two matches (Frim’s ban is only one, I think). Who is not on the pitch will get more mention than who lines up for us.
Yet, as we showed tonight, the players are capable of putting in quality performances and winning in difficult circumstances. If they can push on from here, then surely the results will overshadow these other factors…
As always, it will be up to the players and Arsene to deliver and get the results we need.
Bringing in quality reinforcements will be a great way to follow this win up – and push the crisis headlines even further away. We’re in the champions league proper, so if there actually were any targets waiting to see what European competition we qualified for, that is no longer a factor.
We’ll see how it goes…
If nobody comes in, sure I’ll be disappointed but then I’ll put that to one side and support the squad we have. Four games in and the players look committed and determined, even if they have not always gotten results. Surely they are worth backing to the hilt this season?
Anyways, job well done to the players. We have the small matter of a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday – never an easy place to win, and even more difficult when your squad is so depleted. The odds are hugely against our players: the reigning champions were unbeatable at home last season and have started the season with two wins.
Surely such an under-strength side will be mere lambs to the slaughter? Perhaps.
The deck is always stacked against Arsenal at Old Trafford and this time we will be without our first/second choice DM’s, our best creative mid (Jack), our starting left back and our new winger among others. Sounds like just the challenge our remaining players should relish.
Shock everybody and roll the champions in their own house?
Why not? Why not indeed….
Written by oliver