Arsenal FC are one step away from a 14th consecutive appearance in the UEFA Champions League group stage after a narrow first-leg play-off win against Udinese Calcio.
Theo Walcott's fourth-minute goal proved the difference in an open contest in which the Friulani were unfortunate not to score an away goal. The Serie A side will attempt to turn round the tie when the teams reconvene in north-east Italy next Wednesday.
Arsène Wenger's charges took the lead when 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.
The visitors had threatened little in the opening stages but gave the hosts cause for concern when Antonio Di Natale curled a 20-metre free-kick against the bar. Udinese, deployed in a 4-1-4-1, were content to sit back and hit Arsenal on the break, a ploy that almost paid off when Pablo Armero set off on a 50-metre sprint that took him through on goal. An equaliser seemed a certainty, but Wojciech Szczęsny pulled off a wonderful save, Alex Song blocking Mauricio Isla's follow-up.
Di Natale was a perpetual menace, finding space to wriggle free in the area and fire off a snapshot that skimmed Szczęsny's near post before half-time. By now it was Udinese making all the running and Di Natale could have levelled after Song ceded possession in his own half. However, the Italian international tried to round Szczęsny rather than shoot and Johan Djourou was able to make a crucial tackle.
Like Kieran Gibbs, Djourou was forced off with an injury, and Francesco Guidolin's side continued to take the game to the Gunners, Armero coming close with a fierce shot that flew just over. Indeed just as Arsenal looked like being overrun Walcott squandered a glorious chance, latching on to Ramsey's measured pass only to scuff an elaborate chip with just Samir Handanovič to beat.
His profligacy was almost punished by another free-kick from Di Natale which Szczęsny palmed away on 74 minutes. Arsenal were clinging on and almost carved out a flattering second following a flowing move on the break which culminated in a fine save by Handanovič from Walcott to keep the one-goal margin.
©UEFA.com 1998-2016. All rights reserved.