Walcott strike gives nervous Arsenal a slender advantage
This was a nervy night for Arsenal and they can expect another one next week in a tough town once ruled by Attila the Hun. At least Arsenal will travel hopefully, comforted by Theo Walcott's early goal and a clean sheet.
As well as a reminder that there is life after Cesc Fabregas, last night also provided a reminder of Arsenal's urgent need for defensive reinforcements. Carl Jenkinson, who was playing for Welling United on loan from Charlton Athletic a year ago, came on to make his debut at left-back after changes forced by hamstring injuries to Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou.
Jenkinson did well enough but more experience is required. For all the pleasure taken in a clean sheet, Arsenal desperately need a defender like Gary Cahill. They are certainly not short of money after the sale of Fabregas.
Although the Emirates had been far from full, any feeling of emptiness in Arsenal fans' hearts over Fabregas' departure appeared allayed when Walcott struck so early. For many, there was a sense that life goes on.
Arsenal needed somebody to step up and take responsibility, to dispel the clouds gathered over London.
Walcott had awoken to criticism about his comments over the "starchy" management style of Fabio Capello, the England manager who was watching last night. Yet Walcott, barring highlights like Croatia away, has rarely imposed his undoubted talent with England, and remains a work in progress.
If Walcott felt he had a point to prove, reminding Capello of his quality, then he certainly started well, scoring after four minutes. His was a well-worked goal. Marouane Chamakh began the move, directing the ball to Bacary Sagna on the right. The full-back, espying Aaron Ramsey's run, dinked the ball down the flank, and the Welshman was off.
As Arsenal fans stood in expectation, Walcott was also on the move, speeding into the box and pointing to Ramsey where he wanted the ball placed. Ramsey delivered, Walcott finished with a neat volley and suddenly it was smiles at the Emirates. A beaming Walcott celebrated with an imaginary golf shot.
Walcott was certainly Arsenal's driving force for a while, creating an opportunity that Arsenal should really have seized, settling their nerves further. His corner seemed destined for Gervinho but Thomas Vermaelen became involved, stretching out a leg, taking the ball away from Gervinho, and the move died. A sigh of frustration rolled through the home terraces, although Gervinho's constant movement and dribbles occasionally lifted spirits.
For all the moments of encouragement, Arsenal had to take care. Udinese had lost good players in the summer, most notably Alexis Sanchez, but enough class remained. Antonio di Natale was a constant threat, the No 10 playing the target-man role one moment and then dropping off and looking to release team-mates.
He served notice of his quality with a free-kick that thudded against the bar. Then Di Natale hooked the ball through, a pass that seemed destined for Mauricio Isla until Vermaelen stretched out his left foot to toe the danger clear.
Still the Italians threatened, most memorably in the first half when Pablo Armero embarked on a marvellous charge through the middle, exploiting Arsenal's centre-halves, Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny. Fortunately for Arsenal, they were rescued by Wojciech Szczesny, who stood up to the challenge and read Armero's intentions. From his save, the ball rebounded to Isla, who was thwarted by a diving block from Song.
Arsenal's back four never looked fully convincing, and Di Natale particularly sensed a vulnerability. When Gibbs dithered in possession, Giampiero Pinzi teed up Di Natale, whose low shot slithered just wide. Arsenal's defence was hardly helped by the sitting midfielders, Ramsey and particularly Song. Wenger still needs to buy an anchorman.
Banned from the dugout and dressing-room following his response to defeat in Barcelona, Wenger was at least able to enjoy the Emirates hospitality.
He was also able to send messages to his staff, via Boro Primorac on his mobile phone, although the main change at the break was enforced by a slight hamstring injury to Gibbs. As Djourou ran on at centre-back, Arsenal's best central defender Vermaelen shifted to left back. It didn't last long, Vermaelen returning to his best position within 10 minutes after Djourou, having made one good interception on Di Natale, limped off, rubbing his right hamstring. Has anyone mentioned that Arsenal need some defenders?
As questions mounted, one was answered. UEFA spotted Wenger using Primorac to communicate with the dug out. Arsenal said UEFA cleared Wenger and Primorac to do their mobile double act during a meeting on Monday. Yet such was the very obvious manner in which Wenger was relaying messages that UEFA expressed their concern.
Arsenal simply could not afford to concede a goal, gifting Udinese the initiative for the second leg. Di Natale kept running at Arsenal, kept looking to test Szczesny. One of his free-kicks forced a sprawling save from Arsenal's 'keeper.
Udinese always gave their fans something more to sing about. Pinzi tried his luck, sending a shot whistling just over. Arsenal thought they had a chance of an important second when Gervinho fell under Joel Ekstrand's challenge, but it was a perfectly judged challenge. Walcott almost made it 2-0 but was denied by Samir Handanovic during added time.
Arsenal face a tense night in Italy next Wednesday to determine whether they go into the Champions League or the Europa League. (© Daily Telegraph, London)