Theo Walcott’s fourth-minute goal proved the difference in an open contest in which Udinese were unlucky not to score an away goal. The Serie A side will feel confident that they can turn round the tie when the teams meet in Italy next Wednesday.
Arsenal got off to a great start when within the first five minutes Bacary Sagna played in Aaron Ramsey down the right and the Wales captain delivered to Walcott for the simplest of finishes at the near post. Encouraged by their early breakthrough, the hosts might have doubled their lead when Thomas Vermaelen diverted Marouane Chamakh’s header away from Gervinho as he shaped to turn the ball in.
Udinese were content to sit in a 4-1-4-1 formation and try to hit Arsenal on the break, a tactic that almost paid off when Pablo Armero set off on a 50-yard sprint that took him through on goal. An equaliser seemed a certainty, but Wojciech Szczęsny pulled off a terrific save and Alex Song blocking Mauricio Isla’s follow-up.
The longer the game went on, the more likely it looked like Udiense would grab a valuable away goal and Di Natale could have scored after Song gave away possession cheaply in his own half. However, Di Natale tried to round Szczęsny rather than shoot and Djourou was able to make a crucial tackle.
Udinese continued to take the game to the Gunners with Armero coming close with a fierce shot that flew just over. But then Arsenal hit Udinese with a counter-attack of their own and Walcott wasted a great chance when he latched on to Ramsey’s measured pass only to scuff an elaborate chip with just Samir Handanovič to beat.
Then with Arsenal clinging to their one goal lead, Walcott almost got a second with minutes to go but Handanovič made the save of the match to keep the score 1-0.
Lot of work still to be done by Arsenal in Italy next week. They will have Wenger back on the sideline and Van Persie up-front but with two more defensive injuries tonight Arsenal will be struggling to put a side together. While Udinese can now rest for a week before the second leg, Arsenal have a tough game at home against Liverpool this weekend. And following the second leg in Italy, Arsenal go to Old Trafford three days later. It is a week that could well define Arsenal’s season.