Walcott offers pain relief as defenders fall prey to injury

Arsenal 1 -  Udinese 0

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The Independent Football

It says everything you need to know about the current mood at Arsenal that a lacklustre one-goal victory over the fourth-best team in Serie A was met with no little relief last night, by a club that has learned over the last two years not to take anything for granted.

Arsène Wenger's team started like Champions League old hands but in the end they limped home glad not to have conceded an away goal for the return leg a week today in north-east Italy. For that game they will have the suspended Robin van Persie back in the team and, potentially, Jack Wilshere, who is currently injured, but it will be tense. It seems that these days, Arsenal know no other way.

Theo Walcott gave them a lead after four minutes and for a while at least it looked like Arsenal might end up crushing Udinese. They seemed like they were in the mood and then, as has been so often the case, the energy and verve seemed to drain out of them and Udinese, Antonio di Natale in particular, came back into the game. By the end, those left in the Emirates were watching through their fingers as their side conceded territory and possession in dangerous areas.

The finish for Walcott's goal was sweetly done but after that he turned back into the old bag of nerves in front of goal that he has been in the past. He was presented with two tidy chances, first by Aaron Ramsey and then by Gervinho, to give Arsenal the benefit of a two-goal lead to take to Italy. Both times he snatched at the opportunity and now Arsenal face next week's games with the anxiety that their Champions League lives are not guaranteed.

The Uefa touchline ban that Wenger earned in last season's defeat to Barcelona meant that he was in the Club level seats last night, at least one person who could be guaranteed to be back in time for the start of the second half. Even from up there he managed to embroil himself in a row with Uefa that meant for the first time in a very long time the Arsenal manager did not make himself available to any media after the match.

His unwillingness to speak stemmed from a row with Uefa over whether he was allowed to communicate with his bench via his assistant Boro Primorac who sat next to him in the stand and was on his mobile phone for long periods. Arsenal claimed they had cleared it with Uefa; but the governing body said at half-time that they unhappy about the arrangement and after that the temperature became a lot frostier.

Then came the injuries. Kieran Gibbs was withdrawn at half-time with a hamstring problem; if he really is the long-term replacement for Gaël Clichy then he is dangerously injury-prone. He was replaced by Johan Djourou who came off just 10 minutes into the new half after also pulling a hamstring and had to be replaced by Carl Jenkinson for his senior debut at left-back.

In the meantime, Thomas Vermaelen, one of Arsenal's best players, went from centre-half to left-back and then back again. Jenkinson, a £1m signing from Charlton is a right-back by trade but acquitted himself well on the other side, especially given he was playing at Eastbourne Borough last year. Luckily Arsenal had an excellent performance from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to fall back upon.

If this is the new era, without Cesc Fabregas, and surely without the suspended Samir Nasri for much longer, then it looks worryingly similar to the old one. They can play some good stuff, this Arsenal team, even without the biggest names of their last six years but after an explosive start they lost their way again.

The goal came on four minutes, Alex Song beginning the move with a nice-judged chip down the wing and into the stride of Ramsey who had plenty of time to pick out his cross from the right. He knew where to put the ball because, as Walcott ran into the area, the winger was pointing to the space behind the defender. Walcott met it first time, steering the ball in at the near post.

It was only Walcott's fifth goal of the calendar year and it was scored in front of Fabio Capello, the England manager who lost faith in the player before last summer's World Cup finals. Walcott's autobiography, serialised this week in The Sun, has been a little too candid about the England squad and its manager for Capello's liking. When he first took the job, Walcott could do no wrong but that changed dramatically last year.

Early on last night, Walcott looked like the player Arsenal, and Capello, had always hoped he would be. But then, as was the case with so many of his team-mates, his pace slipped and Arsenal found themselves back on a relatively even footing with a team that they could have buried if that earlier pressure had been sustained.

The star in Udinese's firmament is Di Natale, the top goalscorer in Serie A for two last seasons, and he clipped Szczesny's cross bar with a brilliantly struck free-kick on 12 minutes. That was unnerving for Arsenal but no less so than Pablo Armero's run right through the heart of the home defence on 20 minutes. Song had ceded possession to let Di Natale pass to the winger deep in his own half but even then Armero went past Bacary Sagna with embarrassing ease. Szczesny did well to stand up to the shot.

After the break it was a painful trudge at times for Arsenal and not really any better than the closing stages of the first half. Szczesny was excellent throughout, making a very good save from another swooping Di Natale free-kick on 74 minutes. Ramsey, another impressive performer in midfield, played in Walcott on 69 minutes. His attempt to sidefoot the ball past the goalkeeper was woeful.

In injury-time Walcott was put through beautifully by Gervinho and, with only Samir Handanovic to beat he hit it too close to the goalkeeper who pulled off a brilliant save. There was a nervous finish with another late free-kick from Di Natale. You get the feeling there will be much of this sort at Arsenal this season.

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs (Djourou h-t, Jenkinson 55); Song, Ramsey; Walcott, Rosicky (Frimpong, 72), Gervinho; Chamakh. Substitutes not used Fabianski (gk), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arshavin, , Bendtner.

Udinese (4-4-2): Handanovic; Ekstrand, Benatia, Danilo, Neuton (Pasquale 58); Isla, Agyemang-Badu, Asamoah, Armero; Di Natale, Prinzi (Abdi 88). Substitutes not used Belardi (gk), Denis, Vydra, Abdi, Pasquale, Doubai, Fabbrini

Referee K Blom (Netherlands)

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