Whilst it would be foolish, not to say a little naive, to suggest that Arsenal are completely out of the woods this season, there can be no doubting the significance of last night’s result in Udine. Or the manner in which it was acheived. Because, with 45 minutes played last night advantage erased, it would have been very easy and, going on the evidence of seasons past, entirely predictable for Arsenal to collapse like the proverbial house of cards. It hardly needs saying what the consequences of that would have been for the football club and our manager.
But no, not this Arsenal team. Not this season, not yet.
Having slipped behind to a wonderful Antonio di Natale header and having narrowly avoided slipping out of the contest altogether (the woodwork being our friend for once), Arsene looked around his dressing for the right combination to drag Arsenal back into a contest they weren’t quite out of. His solution? To replace the bustling energy of Emmanuel Frimpong with the guile and experience of Tomas Rosicky. I can’t have been the only one crying “Nooooooooo!” at my television. Can I? But this is why I do what I do and Arsene does what he does.
Theo Walcott had earlier passed up a golden opportunity to grab a crucial away goal following great work from Gervinho. Early in the second half he tried a Thierry Henry but forgot that, to pull off that kind of finish, you normally need to be somewhere in the vicinity of the penalty area. I howled with frustration. And then. And then and then and then… Gervinho danced down the left flank, the covering defender apparently happy for him to do so. Perhaps the covering defender didn’t know that Gervinho’s left foot isn’t just for standing on, but the Ivorian’s cut back from the byline was precise and it found Robin van Persie. Having missed a costly Saturday sitter he wasn’t going to miss this one. We had a crucial away goal, van Persie’s first as club captain, and the balance had swung in our favour.
Just three minutes later, that balance threatened to tilt back towards the home team as one of the officials behind the goal woke up in time to spot a handball by Thomas Vermaelen that nobody else in the stadium had seen. The referee, by and large excellent, awarded the penalty and booked Vermaelen. I didn’t think it was a penalty then and I still don’t. Curiously, our previous European sortie, to Barcelona, had seen an Arsenal goal swiftly followed by a massive helping hand from the officials. Coincidence? Hmmm.
Anyway, di Natale stepped up and hammered his penalty towards Wojciech Szczesny’s right. Szczesny sprang right and got a, big, helping hand up to flick the ball up and over the bar. Szczesny may make better saves in his Arsenal career, but it will be a while before he makes one as important as that. Easy to say after the fact, but I was always confident that the big guy would save it. Well, he’s just got that air about him, hasn’t he? I can only imagine the effect it will have on our season to have a proper goalkeeper in goal throughout. With all disrespect, Manuel…
From then on, it felt as if we would probably be alright (although with Arsenal you can never be sure) and this feeling of well being- coming from behind, away from home, in Europe? Surely not!- was extended by one of the most typically Arsenal goals you will see this season. It all began with Carl Jenkinson winning the ball deep on our right. A swift exchange of passes with the increasingly influential Gervinho, the ball went forward and back. Jenkinson then, across the penalty area, to Vermaelen. Vermaelen to Sagna, to Walcott. Walcott gave and then went, Sagna’s ball took out the Udinese back line and they were never going to catch our fastest forward. He sprinted clear and then positively pulped the ball into the net at the near post. I’m not sure how you feel, but this seems to be the kind of goal he only ever scores in Europe. Whatever, it sealed our place in today’s draw and alleviated some of the pressure Arsene Wenger must have been feeling.
And yes, I think he’s been under a huge amount of it. I, and I’m sure you too, felt the pressure yesterday. Had Arsenal not qualified for the Champions League, the growing clamour for Arsene’s head on a stick outside the Armoury would have inevitably increased. Especially as we go to the home of the champions on Sunday with just one point from our opening six. Especially as we would have gone there knowing that the Europa League and Thursday night football would have seriously damaged our ability to attract the players we need to take the club forward. Happily, we only have to ponder the one point out of six. And, I hate to say it, but we’re only one point worse off than we were from the corresponding fixtures last season. So, I’m less than convinced that our less than convincing start in the league should be used as a stick to beat the manager with.
Especially with the luck we’ve had so far this season. And whilst we’re at it, fresh on the heels of a decision that cost us Gervinho for three games when we should have had a penalty, we get another one. Theo Walcott gets elbowed on the chin, deliberately and in the penalty area. What’s his reward? A booking for dissent that, added to a yellow card in the first leg, will cost us his services for the opening group match. And people think we’re paranoid… I suppose, with United on the horizon, we might as well get used to it. Our detractors will say that we should never have been in this position in the first place and they’re right. But I think that last night, the players demonstrated a commitment and work ethic that shows, with the right additions, this is a team that can go places. They stood up for the Arsenal.
Over to you, Ivan…