|Walcott scored an early opener but with Gunners unable to extend lead this tie is anything but over [GALLO/GETTY]|
Arsenal go into the second leg of their Champions League qualifier against Udinese with the narrowest of advantages after Theo Walcott gave the Gunners a 1-0 victory in the first leg on Tuesday.
Despite Walcott breaking the deadlock after just four minutes, Arsenal were unable to further capitalise on their home advantage as Udinese looked dangerous in attack.
The 1-0 victory was not the result Arsene Wenger would have been hoping to take to Italy on August 24.
Especially as the Gunners have just waved goodbye to their captain Cesc Fabregas and are likely to soon lose playmaker Samir Nasri.
Reaching the group stage is worth more than $30 million, but while Arsenal has been in the lucrative Champions League every season since 1998-99, Udinese are chasing qualification for the first time in six years.
Contesting the Champions League is vital to Arsene Wenger’s hopes of attracting the players who can fill the void left by Fabregas’ departure to Barcelona.
Wenger was forced to watch the match from the stands after UEFA imposed a one-match touchline ban. The ban came in the fall-out from Arsenal’s Champions League exit away to Barcelona last season, where Swiss referee Massimo Busacca had controversially dismissed Van Persie and came in for heavy criticism from both the Arsenal manager and Nasri.
It took less than four minutes to raise spirits inside the Emirates Stadium.
Aaron Ramsey charged down the right flank and floated in a low cross that Walcott turned in past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic off his right shin at the near post.
But for all their speedy moves, the Gunners were regularly caught out on the counterattack by an Udinese side playing their first competitive match of the season.
Pablo Armero stormed between Arsenal defenders Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, but with only Wojciech Szczesny to beat, he was thwarted by the goalkeeper’s strong save. The follow-up by Mauricio Isla was blocked by Alex Song.
And at the start of the second half it required a last-ditch intervention by Johan Djourou to block a shot from Antonio di Natale, who was Udinese’s most dangerous threat. A free kick from Serie A’s top scorer for the last two seasons was pushed wide by Szczesny with 15 minutes remaining.
Arsenal carved out a late opening when Gervinho weaved his way through the Udinese defense and fed Walcott but the winger’s shot was pushed wide by a diving Handanovic, leaving Arsenal with a slender advantage to take to Italy next Wednesday.
The victory also came at a cost for Arsenal with Gibbs coming off at half time with a hamstring injury and his replacement Djourou forced off with the same problem after less than 10 minutes on the pitch.