14 years in the Champions League and counting!
– Udinese – Arsenal: 1-2 Match Report –
Let’s open with a cliché: this was a game of two halves. The first half was ok, but possibly not good enough to qualify for this year’s CL. During the second half Arsenal found its identity again and deservedly beat a spirited, and at times attractively footballing, Udinese football team.
We started very well in the first half, which was incredibly important, given everything that happened to Arsenal over the last few months – on and off the pitch. It was a warm and humid night, and the pitch in the Stadio Friuli looked great (on TV). We started with Szczesny in goal, a back-four of Jenkinson- JD – TV – Sagna; Frimpong, Song and Ramsey in midfield; and Gervinho, Theo and RvP upfront. I had hoped we would play Frimpong and Song together in midfield, but had not expected Ramsey to be the advanced midfielder. I thought Arsene would put Rosicky there from the start, but he kept him on the bench instead – and what a clever move that turned out to be!
Jenkinson started ahead of Traore in our back-four and it is almost a football-fairytale story how the young ‘prince’ Jenkinson has made it to the first eleven of our team in such a short period; and what a prospect he is! Sagna was moved to the LB position, but it was there where we were at our weakest during the first half – and Udinese at their strongest.
Initially Udinese had no answer to our formation and we started to take some control over the game. It was great to see our attacking intentions from the start: Gervinho, Theo, Ramsey and RvP were all hungry and had shots on goal whenever possible. We were also happy to play the long ball on occasion, which gave us the necessary variety in our attacking strategy.
The beauty of winning 1-0 at home, is that an away goal counts double and that is such a psychological advantage during the second leg of a CL qualifier. It totally suited Arsenal who do not know anything else than go out there and attack. The pressure was with Udinese, who knew very well that scoring two goals could still not be enough, as Arsenal are always capable of scoring the all important away goal (or two!).
Gervinho was the most dangerous for us and what a gem Arsene has bought for us this summer. The Gerv just sticks to his role and does it diligently and oh-so effectively. It looks so simple what he does, but how good is it to have a player again who loves to attack space and take on defenders whenever possible for 90 minutes long. The partnership between him and RvP is already looking fantastic and they have only played together for two months.
Frimpong had a good first half, but Song did look a bit lost and rusty at times. Slowly but steadily, Udinese got more grip/dominance on the game during the last twenty minutes of the first half, and in Di Natale they have a player of great quality. He was a joy to watch throughout the game; such clever runs, such energy, such a good balance and body strength, and such lethality in front of goal.
Udinese started to put up two rows of four – very close together – in front of our attackers and we started to struggle a bit to get through. We were vulnerable for attacks from Udinese’s right wing, but luckily we escaped a couple of times. It was, however, during this period that Arsenal had their best chance to nick the all important away goal in the first half. Gervinho found his way into the box with a brilliant move and pulled the ball back perfectly for Theo. The latter hit the ball low and hard – and on target – but the impressive Udinese goalkeeper Handanovic made a great save. RvP received the rebound, but could also not find a hole in the Udinese defence, resulting in another good save by their goalie.
Finally, Udinese found the opening with a couple of quality moves: Pinzi, with some quick thinking, found Di Natale with a good cross, who had positioned himself cleverly between Jenkinson and Djourou – who both should have been tighter on him. Di Natale – the ex-international – proved why he has been the Italian top scorer for the last two seasons, by scoring a classy header over our goalie, from only a half chance. Szczesny had no chance at all. All in all, Udinese deserved to be in front at the break.
In the second half, Rosicky came in for – the impressive Frimpong. This was clearly no reflection on Frimpong’s performance but a tactical change. And what a difference it made. Arsenal started to look again like the Arsenal that we have come to know in recent seasons. Song, back in the DM position, became an absolute beast in the second period: what a transformation. Ramsey looked a lot more in his element, and chapeau to Rosicky who brought some well-needed freshness and directness to our attacking play again.
In the 55th minute, Gervinho’s efforts were rewarded. He made it relatively easy to the by-line and passed cleverly back to RvP: 1-1! With the all important away goal in the bag, it was important to stay calm, but we did the opposite by conceding a penalty, which seemed harsh to me at the time. Anyway, what came next is all that matters: a world-class save by Szczesny – one that we will remember for decades to come and provides us with the final proof that this man is ready for the big stage. Let’s hope that the strength Szczesny showed in his left arm is symbolic for the found again strength and belief within the entire team.
After that save, the Udinese players and their fans never believed in it again. And Arsenal dealt a final blow by a superb goal from the man who loves space as much as Na$ri likes oil-smeared cash. The always impressive Sagna combined cleverly with Theo and the latter finished coolly and professionally. Job done and we are once again, for the fourteenth time in a row, back in the Champions League!
Arsene Wenger has shown everyone again what really matters in football: a well-thought-through system and eleven talented players on the pitch, with hunger and desire to win, and who love to work for each other till the end. Forget about transfers today, just enjoy the moment.
Szczesny: 8.5 – did not make a single mistake and made a world-class save tonight. Superb.
Jenkinson: 7 – confident, energetic, good awareness and calm under pressure: what a buy – he could well be the transfer of the season!
TV: 7 – solid, but gave a penalty away at a crucial time, which could have cost us dearly.
Djourou: 7 – also solid, but should have been putting pressure on Di Natale before he was able to score. Still a fine performance though.
Sagna: 7 – struggled in the first half quite a bit, but played out of position, and is of course not left footed. Combined very well Theo for 2nd goal.
Song: 8 – struggled quite a bit in first half, but what a second half! Once Song gets going, there is no stopping him.
Frimpong: 7.5 – fine first half –worked hard and broke up a lot of attacks. What a prospect!
Theo: 7.5 – good, solid performance. Aggressive from the start and scored a very important, and well taken, second goal.
Ramsey: 7 – still finding his way without either Cesc or Wilshere on the pitch, but improved considerably in the second half. Decent performance overall.
RvP: 7.5 – worked hard and scored the all important first goal.
Gervinho: 8.5 – Man of the Match for me. Song was my MotM in the 2nd half, but overall, Gervinho deserves it in my opinion. He is focussed, works hard for the team, unselfishly looks for the best attacking opportunity, and just added that bit of extra class which made the difference tonight.
Rosicky: 7 – helped Arsenal to find its identity/shape again and worked hard.
Traore & Arshavin – not enough playing time to make a judgement.