Pre-Match Report

Champions League: Udinese v Arsenal - Preview

Stadio Friuli

By Richard Clarke in Udine

“We want to compete with the best teams in Europe and the only way to do that is to play in the Champions League" said a relaxed Arsène Wenger just before he boarded a plane to Italy on Tuesday  afternoon.

“It has a big meaning to me, a big meaning to the players and for the Club as well.

“It's just our life. We want to be at the top. We do not want to be anywhere else.”

Arsenal Football Club has been on an emotional roller coaster over the past few months.

But you sense if they can see off Udinese in Wednesday’s Champions League Play-Off second leg then something like normal service can be resumed.

The Club is up for the battle. And, make no mistake, Arsène Wenger is most definitely a fighter.

The manager brought closure to another transfer saga on Tuesday morning when he decided to let Samir Nasri leave for Manchester City. The midfielder actually took part in training that day but did not board the coach for the airport a couple of hours later.

Wenger’s standpoint was always crystal clear – he did not want Nasri, nor Cesc Fabregas for that matter, to go.

However there is a ‘clean slate’ feeling about sorting out the situation before a game that will certainly shape Arsenal’s season. Champions League football is now an expectation at Emirates Stadium – and that is the work of one man.

Wenger is going for his 14th straight qualification for the Group Stage. Before the Frenchman came along, this Club had been in the competition just twice.

OK, the entry criteria are much wider these days but flick through your records books to find all the sides in Europe that boast such a record.

While you are there also search out how often they have got through the Group Stages – because Arsenal are on 11 straight seasons and counting right now.

Of course the higher the ascent the bigger the potential fall. But this is Arsenal Football Club – an organisation which has experience in coping with the downside of success.

It goes with the territory.

Wenger’s squad is stronger than the one that squeezed past Udinese in the first leg and lost to Liverpool on Saturday.

Gervinho, Alex Song, Robin van Persie all missed one of those through suspension but are available in Italy.

Meanwhile Emmanuel Frimpong’s domestic ban has not come into force yet. Johan Djourou and Armand Traore are fit once again.Laurent Koscielny (back), Jack Wilshere (ankle), Sebastien Squillaci (calf) and Nicklas Bendtner (ankle) are out. Tomas Rosicky (thigh) faces a late fitness test.

Udinese were bright, sparky and probably worth a goal at Emirates Stadium last week. Their failure to hit the net means an Arsenal strike at Stadio Friuli would leave the Italians chasing three.The home side are without striker Antonio Floro Flores (thigh), centre back Maurizio Domizzi (both thigh) and right back Dušan Basta.

They have qualified for the Group Stages only once in their history and so, not surprisingly, and taking the opposite route to Arsenal’s ‘play-it-down’ approach.

Captain and talisman Antonio di Natale said this was “like a World Cup Final” for him while coach Francesco Guidolin added: “We have been preparing this game for 50 days so we will try to hide our weaknesses and expose theirs.”

Wenger will be on the opposite bench after he was given a ‘stay’ on suspension for supposedly breaching his touchline ban in the first leg. A decision the Club are appealing in any case.

However, Guidolin’s side won his respect from the stands at Emirates Stadium and, interestingly, Wenger feels the loss of big-name players will create the opportunity for others on  Wednesday.

“Udinese are team who are very dangerous with their strikers – Mauricio Isla and di Natale,” he said.

“Di Natale had more shots than anybody in the first game while their midfield was strong and compact. We respect Udinese, they are a good side and they showed that in the first game.

“We are in a strong position and we want to build on that. We need to score but as well not to concede goals because if we score, it's not enough. We want to be solid defensively because this is a team that has shown in the first game that they can be dangerous.

“However I believe in the players I have and the best way, sometimes, when you lose big players that gets the team on the edge a little bit. It forces each of them to give a bit more, fight a bit together and that's of course what we will want to show on Wednesday.”

Then there is the heat. Arsenal flew from drab, grey London rain to bright Italian sunshine on the eve of the game. With temperatures expected to be over 30 degrees Celsius at kick-off, Wenger admitted it would be an issue for his side.

“It is little bit too much for us,” he said. “We hope you put a fridge on tomorrow night and it is a little bit colder! In London it is 20 degrees, so that is ideal to play football. Hopefully at 8.45pm local time, it will be better - and a bit colder.”

Climate control is a challenge beyond many but victory over Udinese tonight will certainly go a long way towards affecting some change.

Remember though that Champions League action is no divine right. It is an achievement and something other Premier League clubs have celebrated as a trophy in recent years.

At the end of his media work, Wenger was asked what it would mean to go out of the tournament at this stage.

“We will see after,” he replied. “Let's first give everything.”

That, in a nutshell, is his attitude for Udinese.

What is done is done, control your future and, above all, qualify.

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