Szczesny and Gervinho were the stars as Arsenal turned in a much improved performance to come back from a goal down and claim their place in the Champions League.
More important than actually playing in the elite competition is the £25m or so we’ll make from simply competing and the big part it will play in enticing the quality players we so desperately need to challenge for a top four spot, never mind win a trophy.
More of that later – first, on to the game. Frimpong and Song started in midfield with Ramsey pushing on, but instead of both defensive midfielders sitting to protect our first leg advantage, Song played further forward than normal and wasn’t much cop to be honest. At one point he found himself on the edge of the area and simply toe-punted the ball high over the bar. It’s typical of Wenger’s attack-minded mentality that he’d push on but I can’t help feeling if George Graham was in charge tonight both Frimpong and Song would’ve sat and we wouldn’t have had so many nervy moments. To be fair to Wenger he saw it wasn’t working at halftime and replaced Frimpong with Rosicky, allowing Song to sit in his more usual role where he did very well.
Jenkinson was again in at right back with the ever-dependable Sagna looking very comfortable on the left. It says a lot that in Gibbs’ absence Wenger would rather do that than start Traore – we are in desperate need of a proper left back. Djourou partnered Vermaelen and the front three were Gervinho and Walcott flanking van Persie.
There were no signs of nerves or pressure as we started the game excellently. Wenger seemed to have got his team talk spot on and Gervinho almost set up van Persie before Walcott stung the keeper’s palms with a 20 yarder. Udinese looked nervous and it was always going to be the case that if we scored first the tie was done and dusted. But the Italians grew into the match and with halftime approaching they’d already hit the post twice as our defensive frailties were exposed again. We gave as good as we got though in an entertaining, open half with the lively Gervinho setting up Walcott for a golden chance he fluffed.
Then on 39 minutes the impressive Di Natale lost Djourou and planted a header in off the post, leaving the tie balanced at the interval. Now the pressure was really on and credit to Arsene, he made a positive substitution bringing on Rosicky who buzzed around the field making telling interceptions and tackles as Arsenal dominated the second half.
Theo nets the killer goal - Barca here we come!
The all-important away goal came on 55 minutes when van Persie tapped in after more brilliant wing play from Gervinho. That seemed to be game, set and match but then the ref gave a ridiculous handball decision against Vermaelen and the Italians had a lifeline. Szczesny wasn’t having any of it though and threw up a strong wrist to turn Di Natale’s powerful spot kick over the bar and earn his employers £25m.
The belief visibly drained from Udinese and Walcott wrapped it up soon after, exchanging passes with Sagna before slotting home one-on-one. The last 20 minutes were a training session for the Gunners, although Di Natale still found himself through but dragged his shot wide as Arsenal demonstrated their worrying tendency to switch off at any moment.
So job done thanks to an impressive second half. Szczesny was superb, looking assured throughout and anyone who backed Fabianski last season hang your head – this is what a real keeper looks like. Jenkinson showed no nerves, demanding the ball, overlapping well and looking comfortable in possession as all Wenger’s signings do. Walcott bounced back from his first half howler and had a good second half but I still worry about his consistency. Where was he against Liverpool when the chips were down? Van Persie lead the line well and was in the right place to score the crucial first goal, but the star outfield player was Gervinho, whose direct running and willingness to take on defenders created quite a few chances.
A quick word on the continued bad refereeing decisions that go against us. In four games so far we’ve had three shockers – Gervinho should’ve had a penalty at Newcastle, Suarez was offside on Saturday and how the hell was that a handball by Vermaelen tonight? He was looking at the ground when the ball ricocheted off his chest and grazed his arm! Then to highlight our bad luck, Walcott was elbowed in the face and nobody saw it, yet when Gervinho taps Barton on the cheek he gets a three game ban. Incredible. You have to think it’ll turn for us soon though, hopefully on Sunday.
So our major August hurdle has been cleared, but our performances have been mixed and we urgently need to sign now. I won’t bleat on about how much we need experience or who we should sign – I’ve said it so many times I’m boring myself. But with the carrot of Champions League football and plenty of cash to spend, we’ve no excuse not to bring in some much needed quality throughout the side. If we don’t and Wenger tries to make do with the promising kids we’ve got, we’d better enjoy this season’s Champions League matches because they’ll be our last for a while.
I don’t want to end on a low note though because tonight feels like a burden has been lifted. The players that don’t want to play for us have gone, we are in the Champions League, we have finally found a keeper worthy enough to replace Lehmann and we have oodles of cash to spend. If the club make the right moves over the next seven days there’s a good chance we’ll have a more successful season than we’d dared have hoped for 24 hours ago.
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