Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Shaky Gunners escape a nervy night
Kevin Palmer, Emirates Stadium
You may remember the days when those who dared to question Arsene Wenger's judgement were subjected to vitriolic abuse from Arsenal supporters. Such poisonous words were condemned as blasphemy against a messiah.
Yet as the first home game of this already troubled season dawned for Wenger and his depleted side, the mood of pessimism surrounding a modestly populated Emirates Stadium was palpable for a Champions League play-off game that so nearly deepened the Arsenal gloom.
That Arsenal were playing this tricky play-off tie against hungry Italian opponents Udinese was proof that the project Wenger has championed for the last five years is, at best, on crumbling ground after last season's fourth-placed finish, with the despair inspired by the departure of beloved skipper Cesc Fabregas Barcelona merely accentuating the sense of scepticism around this club.
Confirmation that Arsenal's finest players have lost faith in Wenger's frustratingly stubborn policies has fuelled such pessimism among a growing majority of the club's supporters. Tension rippled around the stadium throughout this game as confirmation that these are uncomfortably troubled times for this great club.
Even after Theo Walcott handed Arsenal a fourth-minute lead that should have settled any nerves, a team lacking the presence of newly-installed and suspended skipper Robin Van Persie failed to take hold of a tie that always had the potential to break Wenger's latest plans before they even left first base.
Led with passion by skipper Antonio Di Natale, Udinese put Arsenal's supporters through agonising misery every time they broke forward and luck more than judgement ensured Wenger's side escaped with their narrow lead intact.
It was Di Natale who set the tone for this tie as his devilish curling free-kick thumped against Wojciech Szczesny's crossbar after 12 minutes, with each and every Udinese attack offering the potential to shatter a trepidation trickling down from the stands and onto the shoulders of Wenger's players.
The sight of Pablo Armero carving through Arsenal with alarming ease after 25 minutes sent a ripple of panic around the stadium, with Szczesny pulling off a fine save to stem a tide that was beginning to mount against his team.
Throughout it all, Wenger was left to wriggle uncomfortably from his seat high in the stands, with the touchline ban he was serving following last season's Champions League defeat at Barcelona's Nou Camp making what was always likely to be one of Wenger's more uncomfortable nights even more excruciating.
Wenger was not even allowed to speak to his team at the break, and he was seen munching on a cream cake in the Emirates Diamond Lounge, assistants Pat Rice and Bora Primorac were called upon to settle the nerves rattling through his team.
Still they refused to subside as the second half got underway. Di Natalee spurned a glorious chance to draw his side level four minutes into the second half and with that, the first rumblings of jeering from Arsenal supporters became audible. It was a poisoning of the atmosphere Wenger and his team could have done without.
While this magnificent stadium is rarely a cauldron of noise, the eerie silence echoing around the Emirates as Arsenal clung onto their advantage with diminishing confidence was fuelling the tensionfor players whose inability to cling onto the ball was a curious addition to their growing list of concerns.
The sight of centre-back Mehdi Benatia joining in with Udinese attacks as Italian dominance began to grow confirmed Arsenal's shift to the back foot appeared to be terminal. A woeful Maroune Chamakh, shaky Aaron Ramsey, a lacklustre Gervinho and the anonymous Tomas Rosicky all struggled to lift their team when they needed it most.
Szczesny came to Arsenal's rescue once again as he produced a flying save to deny Di Natale 15 minutes from time and while Walcott spurned a glorious chance to give Arsenal a two-goal advantage ahead of the second leg in the closing stages, the final whistle was greeted by a confused hum from Arsenal supporters. They did not know whether to delight in their side's fortunate win or despair at a performance that confirmed that on current form their team appears to be second rate at best.
"We were a little shy at the start and the one goal has cost us what may be a vital clean sheet," was the view of Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin, who seemed genuinely enthused by his side's performance. "I feel we can take confidence from this performance because we had chances to score against Arsenal and we could compete with them in many areas. We have to be confident of finding a way to progress."
Being present at this stadium allows the chance to experience the depth of despair rippling through the hearts of Arsenal fans right now and it falls to the man they trust with increasing uncertainty to guide them from choppy waters by splashing the cash in a fashion he has rarely displayed before.
Wenger used his touchline suspension, itself a confused process when UEFA questioned his closesness to Primorac in the stands, to avoid a searching series of questions from a hungry pack gathered in the press room, but his pre-match television interviewed offered a revealing insight into his mindset as he attempts to douse the flames threatening to engulf him.
Indeed, Wenger refused to talk to the press to make a protest at the terms of his ban from UEFA. The trouble is, he may be in more trouble with UEFA now for not doing so.
"There is all gloom and doom around us right now, but people need to realise things are not as bad as the perception that is being given,"
he stated. "I will not spend money on average players, but it there is good quality players available, we will try to get them. I will pay £30 million, even £40 million if I find the right players, don't worry about that.
"The trouble is, it is difficult for us to compete with clubs who have unlimited financial power and the fans have to remember that one reason you may lose big players is they feel the supporters don't love them any more. What we need at this club right now is unity and I hope everyone appreciates that."
A team featuring Van Persie and Jack Wilshire may have enough to make it through to the Champions League group stages, but few Arsenal supporters who endured this nervy, fraught examination will be looking forward to the rematch in Udine.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Di Natale
The Udinese skipper led his team to the brink of what should have been a famous result at the Emirates Stadium. Now they may rue the missed chances spurned in this first leg.
CHAMAKH'S MISERY: Handed the chance to lead the Arsenal line in the absence of the suspended Robin van Persie, Marouane Chamakh was poor from start to finish. If he is the back-up to an oft-unavailable new Gunners skipper, the need for additional strikers is more pressing than previously suspected.
WENGER SPOTLIGHT: UEFA officials are looking into suggestions that the Arsenal boss broke the rules of his touchline ban by getting messages down to assistant Pat Rice through his side-kick Bora Primorac. Additional sanctions may follow in the coming days. Indeed, Wenger refused to talk to the press to make a protest at the terms of his ban from UEFA. The trouble is, he may now be in more trouble with UEFA for not doing so.
ARSENAL VERDICT: If they play like this in the second leg of this tie next week, the Europa League may well beckon for Arsene Wenger this season. It remains to be seen whether Arsenal fans could stomach such a desperate demotion after 13 straight years in Europe's elite competition.