By Richard Clarke
Arsenal have had little trouble traversing the Champions League play-off round in seasons gone by - but Arsène Wenger is taking nothing for granted against Udinese on Tuesday night.
This is the fifth time the Emirates Stadium side have had to qualify for Europe's top competition. On previous occasions - against Dinamo Zagreb, Sparta Prague, Twente and Celtic - the first leg was away and that result would tilt the tie irrevocably towards Arsenal. The home game would be straightforward.
This season, it is quite different. Arsenal are at home in the first game and, with all due respect, face tougher opposition.
Francesco Guidolin took his side to fourth in Serie A last season and despite losing Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona, Cristián Zapata to Villarreal and Gokan Inler to Napoli, they retained the services of Antonio Di Natale. The stocky striker has won the Capocannoniere (the Serie A Golden Boot) in the past two seasons.
"You never knock out somebody from Italy in an easy way so we prepare ourselves for a big challenge," said Wenger. "But we know that and we are ready to give our all to be part of the Champions League Group Stage.
"If Udinese finished in the top four in Italy, they have quality. Yes they lost Sanchez, Inler and Zapata but they bought some players. They have Isla, Di Natale - they have great football players."
Udinese are still ten days away from their first competitive match but Guidolin is a wily coach and his opposite number is expecting this game to be decided in Italy next Wednesday.
"We will try to give our best to win the game without conceding goals," said Wenger. "We want to qualify after two legs but if we can do it earlier, we will do it. I expect a game of 180 minutes where we will have to be at the top for as long as we can. We should not dream that after 90 minutes it will be over. I don't think that would be the right approach."
The aggregate score over two legs will decide who progresses to the Champions League Group Stage. If the scores are level on aggregate, away goals will be taken into account. If away goals cannot determine a winner, extra-time, and then, if necessary, a penalty shoot-out will ensue.
Udinese: Maurizio Domizzi, Antonio Floro Flores (both thigh)Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source