It is normal for dreams to be brought to an end at sunrise following a good nights sleep, but in Udine last Wednesday evening the dreams of Francesco Guidolin, his faithful squad and their 17,000 fans in attendance were shattered in the final 20 minutes of the second half against Arsenal. Having taken a 1-0 deficit home following the first leg in London, there had still been hope of overturning this debt and creating their own legend.
Giampaolo Pinzi speaking before the first leg said: “we have prepared well, intensely, and meticulously” but it was all in vain. They lost the tie, but there was certainly positives to be garnered from the 180 minutes against top opposition. Across the two legs there were a few notes worth pointing out on various tactics, mainly with regard to Udinese.
There was no sign of Guidolin’s famous 3-5-1-1, and quite rightly too. The nervy tactical mastermind decided to deploy a 4-1-4-1 in the first leg and a 4-4-1-1 in the second against Arsenal’s three-man forward line.
The new faces in the side were visible, three quarters of the back line had not been at the club last season – never mind played together before July 1. Benatia was the only member of the defence that played last season: Ekstrand, Danilo and Neuton all provided very good performances – Ekstrand in particular, playing out of position at right back (normally a centre back).
An hour in Guidolin decided to swap Benatia and Ekstrand, inexplicably it seemed. Though both are centre backs by choice Ekstrand had been very good against the Arsenal wingers. Benatia made costly mistakes when he was found flat footed against Gervinho and lacked pace against Walcott. This may be a decision that will keep Guidolin awake for weeks to come.
The Italian side struggled early on, in both legs, to adapt to the pace of Arsenal. They paid the price in the first leg and conceded in the fifth minute, but were able to weather the storm in the second leg, just, thanks to some quick and nimble thinking from Handanovic.
Udinese looked to break into the inside channels and wide areas, attempting to exploit space left by Arsenal’s full backs on their forward forays. Mauricio Isla had appealed to the fans before the game: “I will run for you, but you must sing for me and the rest of the squad” Sadly, Isla’s performance was below par, relative to his known potential, as he struggled to get forward – perhaps shackled by Sagna deputising at left back.
On the opposite flank Pablo Armero gave the young Karl Jenkinson plenty of work to do. Armero was far more effective, though faced with an inferior opponent. Armero was prepared to chase down every ball, and used his tremendous pace to support Neuton and Asamoah defensively when Jenkinson charged forward and support Di Natale when his team mates were in possession.
In the first leg Kwadwo Asamoah was imperious in midfield for Udinese, directing his forces from the middle of the battlefield. But in Udine it was Badu who showed some excellent qualities for a central midfielder. Given the role of shielding the back four, he tenaciously closed down the Arsenal midfielders as soon as they entered his proximity and covered for Neuton and Ekstrand on occasions which they ventured forwards. He also showed proficiency on the ball, able to confidently receive and distribute laterally as well as vertically, and even provided a few driving runs forward – one of which ended in a shot on target.
Antonio Di Natale was left all alone up front for the majority of the first half. Always troubling the centre backs with his movement, either on the shoulder looking for balls played in behind and over the top, or dropping wide to pick up scraps. He ran his heart out in the searing heat and was only given nominal assistance from Pinzi (and Fabbrini) after he was already exhausted.
Wenger brought Rosicky on at half time for Emmanuel Frimpong with the tie level and the impending possibility of extra time. Rosicky played higher up the pitch and, together with Ramsey drove toward the Udinese penalty area. It was Rosicky’s driving run to the near post that created enough confusion to leave Van Persie free to fire home the equaliser.
Ultimately though, it was a tale of two keepers. Samir Handanovic made save after save to keep the tie alive for the Italian side, continuing his excellent form from last season where he equalled Seb Rossi’s record for penalty saves. But it was Wojcech Scsczney, whose penalty save proved the pivotal moment of the tie. Arsenal had just equalised but Udinese had had the better of the last two halves of football – the spirits of the zebrette, and crucially Di Natale, were visibly deflated from this point onward.
Irrespective of the result, Udinese will be remembered by many fans across Europe. What is important now for the side, is that they heed the disaster that occurred to Sampdoria last season. They must find a foil with which to assist the ageing Toto Di Natale and, for Italy’s sake, they must take the Europa League seriously. After all, the fans deserve a few more dreamy European nights.