Udinese 1-2 Arsenal (Agg 1-3)
Arsenal came out with a morale-boosting victory after an entertaining game against a positive Udinese team.
The first half in particular was thrilling, end to end stuff. For Arsenal, there seemed an acknowledgment that with an unfamiliar-looking midfield and defence, attack was the best policy.
But that inevitably left them vulnerable at times. There were a couple of real scares before the opening goal eventually came.
Di Natale served notice of his finishing prowess with a lovely, angled volley into the bottom corner, but was rightly flagged offside. Then he turned provider with a cross for Pablo Armero, who could not conjure a clean header, the ball bouncing off the post before another linesman's flag ended the scramble. Then came the biggest let off, when Isla rampaged down the right, and centred low for Di Natale, stealing in ahead of Djourou. The striker could only hit the post from close range.
After that, Arsenal showed some profligacy of their own. Gervinho produced a positive, direct run down Arsenal's left, beating challenges, advancing into the area, and then squaring for Walcott close in. The finish lacked conviction however, and Handanovic parried. He saved again from Van Persie's follow-up effort.
Shortly before half time, Udinese scored the goal that the game's quality had deserved, and it was a wonderful effort from Di Natale. Pinzi played a clever reverse cross from the right, that found the striker peeling away from Djourou and into space. The cross lacked pace, but from a standing position, Di Natale found power and accuracy, sending the ball looping beyond a static Szczesny and in off the post.
Arsenal weathered a storm until half time, and then responded well. Wenger was positive in replacing Frimpong, who was playing ok, with Rosicky, who became very influential in the second half. Udinese, perhaps tiring, dropped off a little, probably hoping to play their natural, counter-attacking game. The next goal was obviously vital, and Arsenal scored it. 55 minutes in, the impressive Gevinho again beat his man and cut back from the byeline, and Van Persie couldn't really miss from six yards out.
Before Arsenal could think of relaxing, Udinese were awarded a harsh penalty for Vermaelen's supposed handball. Di Natale stepped up and smacked the penalty, but Szczesny made a Seamanesque save, deflecting the ball onto the roof of the net with one strong hand. An amazing stop and one that helped break Udinese's spirit.
The game was made safe (well, maybe not quite where Arsenal are concerned) when Udinese's high line was caught out by a simple, incisive one-two between Walcott and Sagna down the left. Walcott sped through on goal, opened his body out for the Henry-style finish, but instead swept the ball confidently inside the near post. Job done.
A few players, and the manager himself, have to take a lot of credit for a very good result. Szczesny's save was vital, and his performance in general was superb, as against Liverpool. Rosicky helped change the game in the second half. And Alex Song was brilliant in that period, his use of the ball particularly impressive. Gervinho showed his abundant potential.
But there are holes in the current Arsenal squad that Manchester United will remain confident of exploiting this weekend.