By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal go to Udinese next week for the denouement of the Champions League Play-Off with a narrow but crucial 1-0 lead.
Theo Walcott’s fourth-minute strike decided a bright, pacy first leg at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
Both sides had their chances in a match which, given its importance, was wide open. Despite losing a couple of defenders to injury, Arsenal’s backline remained resolute and secured a second successive clean-sheet.
And had Samir Handanovic not saved wonderfully from Walcott in the dying seconds, Arsenal may have stolen the tie.
However, as it stands, there is work to do in Northern Italy next Wednesday.
But by then Arsenal will have their captain back on the pitch and their manager back on the bench.
However, right now, their fate is in their hands. And really that is all you can ever ask for.
It may have been only the second competitive game of the season but it was one of the most important. Arsenal had been in the Champions League Group Stages every season since 1998-99.
It was one of Wenger’s proudest achievements but it was now expected.
This was the first game in the post-Fabregas era but the Barcelona effect was wider than that this evening.
Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Arsène Wenger were all suspended following the defeat at the Nou Camp in last season’s Knockout Round tie. Marouane Chamakh replaced the Dutchman up front meanwhile Walcott came in for Andrey Arshavin on the right. Tomas Rosicky recovered from his thigh problem to retain his place in central midfield.
This was Arsenal’s fifth appearance in the Qualifying stages and, in truth, the first four opponents had been easily dispatched. Despite losing their own star turn to Barcelona, Alexis Sanchez, Udinese were expected to be a different proposition.
And, despite suffering a nightmare start, they were.
In the fourth minute, Aaron Ramsey escaped down the right and whipped in a low ball to the near post where Walcott touched home.
The Englishman celebrated with a golf swing and certainly the early goal was like stroking your opening tee-shot straight down the fairway.
The rough would come a little later.
In the sixth minute, Walcott’s corner was nodded to the far post by Laurent Koscielny but Gervinho miscued from just a few yards out. The flying Thomas Vermaelen may well have drawn his attention.
At this point, Arsenal were bright, aggressive and looking for goals.
However, as we soon found out, so were Udinese.
In the 11th minute, Kwado Asamoah escaped on the right with the Arsenal defence stretched. Fortunately, Alex Song stuck out a leg to block the cross and smuggled away the danger.
Then Udinese won a free-kick on the left. It was 30 yards out but Antonio Di Natale tried his luck and, with Wojciech Szczesny beaten, rattled the bar.
There was a massive amount of money and pride resting on the next 180 minutes so you might have expected a tense, taught and perhaps negative affair. Not a bit of it.
The first 30 minutes were like the last 10 minutes of a blood-and-thunder FA Cup tie.
Udinese had to soak up pressure but were lightning on the counter with Asamoah their spearhead. On 26 minutes, Song was robbed on the edge of the visitors’ box and the Ghanaian sprinted almost 50 yards before seeing his shot beaten away by Szczesny. The rebound eventually found its way to Mauricio Isla on the edge of the box but Song, who had raced back to atone for his error, flew in to block.
The game lost some of it energy as we approached half-time. The only real opportunity came when Di Natale rippled the sidenetting.
Arsenal had to reshuffle at the break. Left-back Kieran Gibbs was forced off so Vermaelen moved out to the position he plays for Belgium. Johan Djourou came off the bench and into the centre-back position.
The Swiss defender’s first intervention was timely. He rushed in to deny Di Natale after Koscielny had given the ball away.
However minutes later Djourou had to limp off and 19-year-old Carl Jenkinson made his debut as a makeshift left back. It was his first competitive game since March 19 when Charlton had visited Dagenham and Redbridge.
It was a tough baptism for the Finnish Under-21 international and he learnt an early lesson when Isla forced his way past and fired a dangerous drive just beyond the far post.
Midway through the half Pablo Armero found space on the left and fired inches over the bar from distance.
Udinese had now taken control of the game. Their football was insistent and Arsenal were on the backfoot, defending at times with any part of the body they had available.
That did mean Arsenal had opportunities on the break. In the 69th minute, Ramsey’s pass split the Udinese defence and sent Walcott clear.
The Englishman tried to open his body to steer a shot in to the far corner. Unfortunately he scuffed his effort.
Szczesny threw himself to his left to bat away another free-kick from Di Natale. Giampiero Pinzi then rattled a stanchion.
But the best late chance fell to Arsenal. At the start of injury time, Gervinho slipped a clever ball to Walcott on the left of the area. The striker hit it first time but Handanovic fingertipped the ball past the post. A stunning - and vital - save.
Armero flashed a shot just over at the death but Arsenal had their goal and, just as importantly, their clean-sheet.
The advantage is a narrow one but it is significant.
** Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou suffered minor hamstring problems during the game and could miss Saturday's Premier League fixture with Liverpool.
- Walcott Goal! Yellow Card
- Rosicky 73
- Gibbs 46 Yellow Card
- Djourou 55 46
- Jenkinson 55
- Frimpong 73
- Armero Yellow Card
- Neuton 60 Yellow Card
- Ekstrand Yellow Card
- Pinzi 88 Yellow Card
- Pasquale 60
- Abdi 88