Arsenal hosted Italian team Udinese last night in the first leg of the Champions League fourth qualifying round. The prize for the team that qualifies is of course entry into the group stages of the Champions League, and guaranteed income of at least €20 million. It's a prize that Arsenal can't afford to miss out on, and a victory in the home leg was essential to give them an advantage ahead of their trip to Italy next Wednesday.
The Arsenal team on the right was more or less as expected, as Arsene Wenger had very few options available to him. The only surprise for me was the inclusion of Theo Walcott in the team, as Andrey Arshavin sat on the bench. I thought Walcott looked short of fitness on Saturday when he came on as a sub against Newcastle United, and I expected Arshavin to start again.
Walcot repaid the manager's faith in him very quickly, as he got on the end of an excellent Aaron Ramsey cross to put the ball in the net from close range and give Arsenal a 1-0 lead. It was just the start Arsenal had hoped for and if they could have built on it they would have been clear favourites to progress. However, Udinese weren't about to give up on their European dream quite so easily, and they soon showed why they were so highly rated.
There were plenty of other chances in the first half in what was a very open encounter, but most of them fell to Udinese. Antonio Di Natale hit the bar with a free kick and Kwadwo Asamoah brought an excellent save fom Wojciech Szczesny after a great run from his own half. The Arsenal defence opened up very easily in front of him, but thankfully Alex Song blocked the rebound.
Song had originally given the ball away, but he sprinted back to attempt to rectify his error. A few of the defenders could have put in that effort, as they seemed to jog back despite the obvious danger. Half Time arrived with Arsenal still ahead, but Udinese looking likely to score at some stage.
Arsenal had to replace Kieran Gibbs at the start of the second half, as he had picked up a hamstring injury. Johan Djourou came in as a central defender, and Thomas Vermaelen moved to left back for a while at least. Unfortunately only nine minutes later Djourou also picked up a hamstring injury, and Carl Jenkinson came on for his Champions League debut.
He was put in at left back with Vermaelen moving back to the centre, and it seemed to cause Arsenal to lose their purpose for quite a while. I'm not knocking Jenkinson at all, as he did as well as could be expected but I felt it was unfair on him to be thrown in at the deep end. The defence remained relatively strong, but Arsenal's midfield had almost disappeared from the game at that stage.
Ramsey was doing all he could to stay on top of the game and Song put himself about in his usual fashion. However, Tomas Rosicky looked far from comfortable, and it was no surprise to see him leave the field in the 73rd minute to be replaced by Emmanuel Frimpong. Arsenal looked a little less fragile after that as the youngster added some much needed stability to the team.
With about 10 minutes left I thought both teams seemed to settle for the scoreline, and hope to finish the tie off next week. There were three added minutes and during that time Arsenal had their best chance of killing the tie off when Gervinho played Walcott through on the keeper. His first time shot from 10 yards was excellently saved by Samir Handanovic, and Udinese breathed a sigh of relief.
There were other chances at both ends throughout the second half, but Arsenal managed to get the exact result I had predicted. It's hardly an ideal lead to take into next week's game, but at least they have a lead and they kept a clean sheet too. Next week's game will be far from easy, but at least Robin Van Persie will be available again after suspension.
It would be a huge boost to the team if Jack Wilshere was available too, but it doesn't look likely at the moment. I thought his presence was sorely missed last night, and the whole team lacked drive going forward as a result. The sooner he returns from injury the better for Arsenal, as they have three very tough games in a row coming up.
The importance of RVP cannot be overstated either, as Marouane Chamakh continued his form from the second half of last season. He held the ball up pretty well, but he seemed reluctant to go anywhere the Udinese box. He drifted into wide positions or tried little flicks to put other players in when he should have been the player on the end of any ball into the box.
Nicklas Bendtner was on the bench despite the fact that the club have agreed to let him go, but I couldn't help feeling he was the man to lead the attack with RVP out. I'm not Bendtner's biggest fan but he has a good scoring record when he plays in a central role, and he could not have been worse than Chamakh last night. If it was up to me I think Chamakh should be sold before Bendtner, or another striker should be bought.
The team lacked any cohesion for the most part last night and at times the player in possession had no options. Players didn't make runs when they should have, and all too often Arsenal couldn't find a man in space. The passing was very poor at times, and too often the ball was given away under no pressure.
The injuries to both Gibbs and Djourou will probably mean they're both unavailable for Saturday's early kick off against Liverpool. Rosicky looked like he might have picked up a knock too and Arsenal are very short of options for that game. Gervinho is suspended and he will probably be joined by Song when the FA adjudicate on his stamping incident against Newcastle.
It will probably mean Sebastien Squillaci will play and that doesn't fill me with a lot of confidence. The midfield has so few options that I'm hoping for Rosicky to be fit, and Frimpong will probably have to play too. The bench on Saturday will give a real indication of how strong Arsenal's squad actually is.
The biggest positive from last night's game was obviously the fact that Arsenal won while playing badly, and kept another clean sheet. The defence certainly looks better prepared defending from set pieces so far this season, and I can only hope it continues. If the defensive issues can be solved it gives me some hope that Arsenal can challenge for trophies this season.
The club announced yesterday that they had reached an agreement with Galatasaray to sell Emmanuel Eboue to them, and also that Carlos Vela will spend the season on loan at Real Sociedad. I don't think Eboue will be particularly missed and Vela just doesn't seem to have a place in the current Arsenal squad. It should open the way for more players to arrive before the transfer window closes in two weeks time.
If all goes to plan Samir Nasri, Bendtner and Manuel Almunia will all be on their way too, and Arsenal will need plenty of players to replace all of those departing. Four other players were sold and only four players have arrived in so far. Three of those players who arrived are ones for the future, and some experience is needed right now.
I would be happy to see both Gary Cahill and Scott Parker arrive before the weekend, and be available to play against Liverpool on Saturday. I can't see it happening, but Arsrenal have the money to buy them and they would be good enough to challenge for a first team place.
There are also quite a few fans looking for Arsenal to sign Marvin Martin from Sochaux in France. He plays a similar role to the one Cesc played for Arsenal, and he managed 17 assists last season. I don't know too much about him, but he's certainly a player for Arsenal to consider.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from last night's game.
See You Tomorrow.