Arsenal were a little lucky to maintain their one-goal lead over Udinese last night, and they will need to be at full strength if they are to be confident of maintaining that narrow advantage over the combative Friulian side in next Wednesday's return leg.
Tomas Rosicky and Marouane Chamakh, two of Arsène Wenger's more disappointing recruits, replaced the injured Jack Wilshere and the suspended Robin van Persie but could do little more than illustrate the shallowness of the resources with which Arsène Wenger has allowed his club to enter a very demanding opening phase of the new season.
Long before the end of a twitchy evening the familiar sounds of unrest were coming even from some of those who had chanted their support of Wenger before the kick-off. Yet although composure and precision may have been missing as the players strained to build on the lead given them by Theo Walcott's fourth-minute goal, the fans recognised that what the majority of the team did not lack, at a time of tension, was spirit. At the final whistle there was applause for a performance full of effort even if markedly deficient in the sort of finesse customarily associated with Wenger's teams.
Shorn of leaders and of artistry, they seemed determined to demonstrate their collective commitment. But if Wenger does not use the money accruing from the sales of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri to strengthen the side by the time the squad arrive in Italy next week, the widespread disenchantment will take firmer root.
The team appeared to be taking the earliest possible opportunity to make a statement about life after Fábregas (and Nasri, Gaël Clichy and Denilson) when Walcott arrived at the near post to meet the low cross of Aaron Ramsey, below, from the right and clip the ball into the Udinese net.
This could also be taken as a personal statement from Walcott to the watching Fabio Capello, who had allegedly been upset this week by comments about England's 2010 World Cup campaign in a newspaper extract from the 22-year-old's forthcoming autobiography.
Here was a fleeting glimpse of the Arsenal their fans yearn to see, not just revelling in their skill, speed and youth, but finding a finishing touch to make the most of all that approach work.
And here, too, a brief demonstration of what Walcott could become if no longer confined to patrolling the right flank, the area of the pitch in which he has served his long Premier League apprenticeship.
He and Wenger have always envisaged a future for him as a goalscoring second striker, the role he played when catching the eye as a teenager at Southampton. It was Wenger who decided to allow him to acclimatise to the big league out on the wing, and Capello was the beneficiary when the youngster used his speed in Zagreb to score a memorable hat-trick. But Walcott has never possessed a winger's instincts, and has never looked likely to acquire them. What he has is devastating pace and sometimes, but not always, a cool finish. He might have had another hat-trick last night had he not made grotesque hash of an attempt to chip the Udinese goalkeeper with 20 minutes to go and placed a first-time shot just within the reach of Samir Handanovic in the 90th minute, an opportunity created by Gervinho's dribble and pass.
Last night he and Gervinho were deployed on either side of Chamakh, with the licence to interchange freely and to get ahead of the centre-forward. Chamakh frequently dropped deep to accept early balls played out of defence with the aim of drawing defenders and playing his colleagues into the opposing penalty area, but his interventions lacked any semblance of authority and after such a promising start Arsenal gradually fell into the old habit of failing to make capital from any amount of possession.
The thought occurred that they could do with someone like the 33-year-old Antonio Di Natale, Udinese's captain, a versatile, reliable and streetwise forward who has been Serie A's leading scorer for the past two seasons. The chunky Di Natale hit Wojciech Szczesny's crossbar with a 30-yard free kick in the first half, and late in the second period the goalkeeper launched himself to turn another dead-ball effort from the same player round a post. With the energetic support of the two Ghanaians in Udinese's midfield, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu and Kwadwo Asamoah, Di Natale was giving his side a point of reference and an attacking structure that frequently reduced Arsenal's defence to desperate last-ditch measures.
Wenger, however, prefers to invest in promise rather than experience, and at this juncture the consequence of a persistent collective callowness is that while his club may have a waiting list of 40,000 for their season tickets, the empty seats in the middle and upper tiers last night spoke of the dissatisfaction of those among their supporters who do not subscribe to the doctrine of keeping the faith through thick and thin.
The fans of many other clubs, perhaps of all but three or four in the Premier League, might question North London's somewhat exaggerated definition of "thin" if it includes a 14th successive season in the Champions League, even if that meant taking part in this year's qualifying round. The anxiety, however, is far from being dispelled. Walcott's goal may have bought the manager a little leeway, but no more than that.
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