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View From The North Bank: Udinese 1 Arsenal 2

The magnitude of last night’s game hardly needs restating. Arsene Wenger’s spotless qualification record was under threat. Defeat would mean that a cornerstone of Le Boss’s reputation would take a severe blow, not to mention the huge impact it would have on who we could attract to the club, both in terms of status and finance.

Whether this result marks a watershed whereby we can move on from past frailties remains to be seen, but last night definitely hinted at a strong team spirit and, if nothing else, relieved a lot of pressure.

The game started positively with both teams looking to strike early. This suited Arsenal as we always knew that one goal would give Udinese a mountain to climb.

In truth, an uncharacteristically dynamic Serie A side quickly took control of the game. Isla, Armero and Pinzi were spearheaded by the impish Di Natale and were just about repelled by a mixture of last ditch defending, assured goal keeping and good fortune (via the foot of the post).

The Italians finally made the breakthrough when our midfield triumvirate were caught flat and too far in advance of the back four. Pinzi floated a ball in towards Di Natale, who wasn’t marked closely enough and the veteran managed to loop a quality header over Szczesny. There were obvious deficiencies on our part – Frimpong and Song played well individually but looked like they weren’t used to sharing the same pitch.

Half time eventually came and I got the impression that even though Gervinho’s direct gazelle-like running meant we had a good chance to score, Udinese looked to have impetus and I feared them grabbing another.

At the break Wenger rang a tactical switch as Frimpong was replaced by Rosicky. Every Gooners’ new favourite player had done little wrong but it made sense to take the gamble on the Czech giving a better balance to our midfield. Super Tom’s tireless running proved to be a turning point. The decision to retain Rosicky will be backed in all quarters if he is able to reprise this sort of performance – his best in an Arsenal shirt since Anfield ’07 – with any regularity.

Shortly after the break Gervinho’s desire attack his man created an identikit chance for RVP to succeed where Theo hadn’t been able to, the space created by a fantastic near post run from Rosicky. 1-1 and the Italians had just over half hour to score twice. True to form we conspired to give away what seemed a very soft penalty – absolutely no way Vermaelen handled the ball, intentionally if at all. Typical Arsenal. We’d done the hard work but we were doing what we could to throw it all away.

My slightly pessimistic view didn’t take into account the fact that our first choice keeper is now a supremely confident, wonderfully talented and mentally tough individual. He spoke after the game of trying to psyche out the veteran Di Natale which tells you a lot about the Pole’s approach but in the end it wasn’t his mouth that gave him the edge, it was his undoubted goalkeeping talent. In terms of magnitude it’s up there with Lehmann at Villarreal and for quality it rivals Seaman against Sampdoria in the Cup Winners Cup.

As the game stretched, Sagna and Theo worked the left side. Walcott’s pace exposed a tiring Italian backline and his finish was clinical. It’s true that the young Englishman can struggle when he has to think his way out of a situation but on more than one occasion last night he drifted in from the flank and positioned himself on the shoulder of a centre half, where he is at his most dangerous. If he can keep showing that desire, allied to Gervinho’s constant knocking at the door, he may well compound the one dimensional view of Ian Wright that we ought to play him through the middle and look for hopeful balls over the top. Whilst I’m not averse to seeing Theo used as a striker, you don’t have to be Rinus Michels to realise that top level Football isn’t that straight forward. Wright was a great striker but an accomplished tactician he aint.

What could have been a calamitous night turned out right in the end. Wenger will no doubt be proud that he has yet again guided his team into Europe’s premier competition but he will also take pleasure in the fact that this performance spoke well of his latest batch of youngsters. Ramsey, Jenkinson, Frimpong, Szczesny and Gervinho all faced up the challenge we faced admirably and provide more ammunition for Wenger to defend his policies.

This however is still only the beginning. The players have shown yet more great potential and an often doubted togetherness to avert near catastrophe. Now it’s over to Wenger and Gazidis to bust open the transfer window and supplement the quality we have with more substance. The first test of a trying week has been passed; now the chance to build upon it.

Keep the Faith, In Wenger We Trust!