Arsenal narrow win against Udinese in play-off round

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Arsenal began life after Cesc Fabregas in unconvincing fashion as Theo Walcott’s goal secured a fortunate 1-0 win over Udinese in the Champions League Qualifiers first leg at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.

Just 24 hours after Fabregas finally completed his long-awaited move to Barcelona, Arsene Wenger’s team began their attempt to qualify for the group stages of Europe’s elite club competition with a patchy display that hardly bodes well for their prospects without the Spaniard.

Although Walcott’s first-half goal at least gave Arsenal a slender advantage to protect in the second leg in Italy on August 24, the Gunners will have to improve to avoid an embarrassing early exit.

Fabregas’ ability to retain possession and launch attacks was sorely missed and Arsenal needed a large dose of luck to hold onto their lead as Udinese carved open their shaky defence time and again.

With Wenger absent from the post-match press conference due to his touchline ban, it was left to Aaron Ramsey to discuss Arsenal’s performance.

“Cesc was a great player for the club but now he’s gone. We dug in and gave absolutely everything tonight,” Ramsey said.

“The most important thing is the clean sheet. We believe we’re capable of going over there to win.”

Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin added: “We didn’t take the chances we had, but it is still an open match and we have a chance of qualifying in the next match.”

After six years without a trophy, it is no longer just a restless minority of the club’s supporters who doubt Wenger, as emphasised by the rows of empty seats and gloomy atmosphere.

In the circumstances, spending a season in the Europa League is an extremely unpalatable thought for Wenger, who was serving a touchline ban following last season’s stormy Champions League exit in Barcelona.

Robin van Persie, newly installed as captain, was banned after his red card in the Nou Camp, while Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri were also missing through injury and suspension.

Despite the lengthy list of absentees, Arsenal made a dream start as Walcott opened the scoring in the fourth minute.

Bacary Sagna flicked a pass down the right wing to Aaron Ramsey and he curled over a cross towards Walcott, who had timed his run perfectly to volley past Samir Handanovic from close range.

Walcott got himself in hot water earlier this week with some candid revelations about the hardline reign of England coach Fabio Capello, so his goal was well timed with the Italian watching from the stands.

Gervinho should have doubled Arsenal’s lead moments later, but the Ivory Coast forward got in a tangle with team-mate Laurent Koscielny with the goal at his mercy.

Inevitably, Arsenal’s back-four remains a cause for concern and Udinese, gifted a free-kick by some panicky defending, nearly equalised when Di Natale’s free-kick deceived Wojciech Szczesny and struck the crossbar.

Udinese are yet to start their Serie A campaign, yet they were still sharp enough to knock Arsenal out of their stride.

It took a last-ditch tackle from Thomas Vermaelen to halt another incisive Udinese attack and Wenger’s side lived even more dangerously when Pablo Armero surged through a gaping hole in the Gunners’ defence, only to shoot straight at Szczesny.

Walcott and Gervinho continued to offer moments of menace, but Di Natale was a constant threat and the veteran striker looked set to equalise early in the second half when he ran onto Armero’s pass.

He was just about to pull the trigger when substitute Johan Djourou, on in place of the injured Kieran Gibbs, slid across to block his path.

When Djourou limped off soon after, Wenger might have feared it was going to be one of those days.

His team were giving the ball away with uncharacteristic regularity and Armero almost took advantage when the midfielder drove just over from 25 yards.

Di Natale’s free-kick was well saved by Szczesny in the closing stages and even when Walcott had a clear sight of goal his shot was brilliantly tipped away by Handanovic.

Champions League play-off results:

FC Copenhagen (DEN) 1 Viktoria Plzen (CZE) 3
BATE Borisov (BLR) 1 Sturm Graz (AUT) 1
FC Twente (NED) 2 Benfica (POR) 2
Arsenal (ENG) 1 Udinese (ITA) 0
Lyon (FRA) 3 Rubin Kazan (RUS) 1

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