Relief in Udine
Arsenal are now midway through the latest of the 'big weeks' that have so far dominated August, and entered tonight's Champions League Final Qualifying Round Second Leg away to Udinese with more than a sense of trepidation. Carrying a slender 1-0 lead from the First Leg, much work was still to be done to ensure qualification into the group stage for the 14th consecutive season.
The first half was frantic, and although Arsenal settled into a passing game early on Udinese were a continual threat on the counter attack. Udinese's diminutive captain Antonio Di Natale resumed his role from last week as a general thorn in Arsenal's side, exposing the team's defensive concerns. He had a goal (correctly) adjudged to be offside, then struck the post, and five minutes before half time scored an exquisite, looping header to put Udinese 1-0 up on the night and level the tie overall. This inevitably sent Twitter into overdrive and satiated the salivating journalists and pundits looking to continue the wish-fulfillment 'Arsenal in meltdown' narrative that has enveloped the media throughout the summer. Arsenal strugged to find their rhythm for the rest of the opening 45 minutes, and the half time whistle was a welcome relief.
The obituaries had been written. Arsenal were 45 minutes away from Champions League elimination, £25m automatically written off the balance sheet, and worst of all, joining Tottenham for Europa Thursdays on Five. Arsenal were soon to cease to be a 'big club'.
However, contrary to the received wisdom that Arsenal have no self-belief and are too inexperienced to handle the pressure of the biggest games that the doyens of the press would have us all believe, the team stormed out of the proverbial blocks at the start of the second half, clearly targeting Udinese's fullbacks as they sought to regain control of the tie. Gervinho used his pace and trickery to ghost past Medhi Benatia and get to the byline, cutting back for Robin van Persie to smash home the equaliser and put Arsenal ahead on aggregate with a crucial away goal; Udinese now required to score twice to advance.
Minutes later Thomas Vermaelen was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball inside the box, Udinese were awarded a penalty, and with it the chance to immediately get back into the tie. Di Natale stepped up, and smacked the ball to the left of the goal, only for Szczesny to push the effort over the bar with a confident one handed save, symptomatic of a young goalkeeper thriving as the new number 1 (in all but actual number). As Udinese continued to search for a way back into the tie, Arsenal broke and Theo Walcott sealed qualification by using his pace to speed past the tiring Udinese defenders and put the £25m seal on a confident second half performance from Wenger's young players. Of course the night's major injustice was the shoddy Italian broadcasting that robbed viewers of a chance to see Walcott and Sagna's pre-orchestrated 'putting' celebration by the corner flag.
So where do Arsenal go from here? Well, Monaco for a start, for the Group Stage draw at 1700 tomorrow! Boom, and indeed, boom. Now Champions League qualification is assured, Arsene Wenger must spend money to plug the gaping holes in the squad. Though it is unclear how big his transfer budget is, the coffers have swelled in the last few weeks with the departures of Cesc and Na$ri netting the club somewhere in the region of £60m, and the impending departures of Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia (please?) should loosen the wage budget. Gael Clichy has not been adequately replaced at left back and the need for some creativity in midfield should be Wenger's priority as we enter the final 7 days of the transfer window. I'm unconvinced by the cries for a top centre back, as I have been impressed by the Koscielny-Vermaelen partnership, but certainly decent 3rd/4th choice cover is needed. Scott Dann would fit the bill.
I'm not alone in my fear that Wenger won't actually spend, and he has already stated that he is focusing on promoting from within the current squad, but will spend if he finds the right players. Whoever they may be. Experience and creativity are needed to convince that the club can challenge this season. It is pleasing to hear of names like Eden Hazard, Yann M'Vila and Marvin Martin being linked to the club but such is the covert nature of Arsenal's transfer dealings, no one can be sure who we are tracking or the likelihoods of any bids. It's highly unlikely any new signings will take place before Sunday's trip to Old Trafford; I predict a typically eventful final few hours on deadline day as Arsenal look to push through deals on the cheap, which as strategies go is very high risk.
Arsenal had three huge missions going into the final ten days of the transfer window: qualify for the Champions League group stages, get a result at Old Trafford and buy some players. The first has been met. Now let's hope we get grab what under current circumstances is classified as an 'unlikely win' at Old Trafford before a final push in the transfer market.