BERNE — Arsenal have suffered a difficult start to the season, but face equally weakened football opponents when they host Udinese in a Champions League qualifier today hoping to reach the group stage for the 14th season in a row.
Bayern Munich, whose Allianz Arena will host the final, take on outsiders FC Zurich tomorrow in another of this week’s 10 play-off round first-leg ties with top sides knowing that a slip-up could wreck their season before it has barely started.
Former European champions Benfica and French side Olympique Lyon also have to battle through one of the most ungratifying fixtures of the calendar, with lots at stake and many teams still in pre-season mode.
Four of the 20 clubs in action — Polish champions Wisla Krakow, Swedish champions Malmo, Denmark’s Odense and Czech Republic champions Viktoria Plzen — will be attempting to reach the group stage for the first time.
The draw is divided into two halves, with champions from the lower-ranked Uefa nations in one half and non-champions from higher-ranked nations in the other.
The system, in its third season, is designed to guarantee five places in the group stage for champions of smaller countries, who previously found their way blocked by the likes of Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Udinese.
Like four-times winners Bayern, missing out on the group stage would be nearly unthinkable for 2006 runners-up Arsenal and they have probably landed the toughest tie of the draw.
With top player Cesc Fabregas gone and Samir Nasri looking likely to leave and the likes of Jack Wilshere set to be injured for the first leg, Arsenal could be forgiven for feeling sorry for themselves.
The Italians, however, have sold their key players from last season with Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez joining Barcelona, Switzerland captain Gokhan Inler going to Napoli and Cristian Zapata signing for Villarreal.
In doing so, Udinese have raked in more than ₣60 million($85,29 million) in transfer fees, but also broken the backbone of last season’s team which finished fourth in Serie A and was regarded as the most entertaining side in the league. Today’s match at the Emirates will be the first competitive outing of the season for Francesco Guidolin’s team, who are still building for the new Italian league campaign which starts on the last weekend of the month.
“It’s a very difficult match against one of the most important clubs in Europe,” general manager Franco Collavini told reporters following the draw. —Reuters