London: Arsenal began life without Cesc Fabregas with a 1-0 win over Udinese on Tuesday, although a lively performance from the visitors ensured the Champions League playoff remains in the balance heading into the second leg.
Theo Walcott scored just four minutes into the first leg to raise spirits among demoralized Arsenal fans following Fabregas' departure, but the injury-hit Gunners could not build on its early advantage.
Only Wojciech Szczesny's saves ensured Arsenal goes to Italy next week with its slender advantage intact as it looks to play in the lucrative Champions League for the 14th consecutive season and guarantee at least $30 million from UEFA.
"We tended to drop off a bit and there were gaps appearing but we dug in and gave absolutely everything tonight," Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey said. "We believe we're capable of going over there to win. The most important thing is a clean sheet. Our defense was solid."
Ramsey is one of the players expected to fill the boots left by Fabregas' drawn-out move back to boyhood club Barcelona on Monday.
"It's time to move on â€” he was a great player for the club but now he's gone," Ramsey said. "We just have to concentrate on what we've got here. We believe the squad we've got is very talented."
It was the Wales international who helped to give fans a glimmer of hope for the future by charging down the right flank and floating in the low cross that Walcott turned in past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic at the near post.
"I want to get more goals," Walcott said. "It's a great ball Aaron's played for me. Hopefully the boss will play me up front."
But for all their speedy moves, the Gunners were regularly caught out on the counterattack by an Udinese side playing its first competitive match of the season and chasing a spot in the group stage for the first time in six years
Udinese captain Antonio di Natale came close to leveling early on when he curled in the free-kick from 30 yards which looped off the crossbar.
There was another scare for Arsenal after 25 minutes when Alex Song conceded possession deep in Udinese territory, allowing Pablo Armero to storm forward and easily go through the brittle barrier of defenders Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs.
But with only Wojciech Szczesny to beat, Armero was thwarted by the goalkeeper's strong save and the follow-up by Mauricio Isla was blocked by Song, who had raced back into his own half.
At the start of the second half it required a last-ditch intervention by Johan Djourou to block a shot from Di Natale, who was Udinese's most dangerous threat.
A free kick from Serie A's top scorer for the last two seasons was also pushed wide by Szczesny with 15 minutes remaining.
"We deserved more than the actual result on the pitch," Udinese coach Francesco Guidoli said through a translator. "We didn't take all the chances we had and lost the game, but it's still an open match ... and we built confidence."
Arsenal carved out a late opening when Gervinho weaved his way through the Udinese defense and fed Walcott but the winger's shot was pushed wide by a diving Handanovic.
"I'm still coming back from my ankle injury," Walcott said. "The goalkeeper's made an absolutely fantastic save. It's early days, it's my first 90 minutes, and I'm very happy with the result. That's the important thing."
The victory also came at a cost for Arsenal with Gibbs coming off at half time with a hamstring injury and his replacement Djourou forced off with the same problem after less than 10 minutes on the pitch.
Arsenal was not helped by manager Arsene Wenger being unable to directly issue orders as he was banished to the stands by UEFA, his punishment for a tirade against a referee last season after the Champions League loss to Barcelona.
And UEFA told Wenger at half time that he could be contravening its rules by passing instructions to assistant manager Pat Rice on the touchline via first team coach Boro Primorac, who was sitting alongside him in the directors' box.
New captain Robin van Persie and midfielder Samir Nasri were suspended, although the latter is set to follow Fabregas out of Arsenal and would have been cup-tied had he featured on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, Lyon beat Rubin Kazan 3-1, Czech champion Viktoria Plzen won by the same score at Copenhagen. There were two draws, with Benfica held 2-2 in the Netherlands at FC Twente and Austrian side Sturm Graz drawing 1-1 in Bulgaria at BATE Borisov.