Champions League offers mixed blessings for Arsenal

Arsenal have suffered a difficult start to the season but face equally weakened opponents when they host...

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Arsenal have suffered a difficult start to the season but face equally weakened opponents when they host Udinese in a Champions League qualifier on Tuesday 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 on Wednesday in another of this week's 10 playoff 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 players Cesc Fabregas 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 euros (52.35 million pounds) 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.

Tuesday'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.

"We are working to complete our squad for the end of August. It's important to have the opportunity to play a club like Arsenal."


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was still wary.

"Udinese have lost Sanchez and Zapata but they have many other good players," he said. "They have (Antonio) Di Natale and plenty of players who have quality. Who would want to play against an Italian opponent? We know we will have to be at our best to qualify."

Bayern, forced into the playoffs after finishing a disappointing third in the Bundesliga last season, should not expect too many problems against visitors who finished second in the Swiss Super League.

The Bavarians have missed the group stage only once since 1997/98.

Wisla Krakow host Cypriots APOEL on Wednesday as they bid to become the first Polish side to reach the group stage since Widzew Lodz in 1996/97.

Malmo, beaten European Cup finalists in 1979, on Wednesday visit Dinamo Zagreb, themselves hoping to qualify for the first time since 1999/00 having fallen at this stage five times before.

On Tuesday Plzen go to Danish champions FC Copenhagen, who reached the last 16 last season, and on Wednesday fellow Danes Odense are at home to Villarreal, semi-finalists in 2005/6.

Benfica, twice European champions in the competition's early days and five-times runners-up, travel on Tuesday to Dutch side Twente Enschede, who made their group stage debut last season.

The Portuguese outfit have made a relatively modest six Champions League appearances.

Olympique Lyon, hoping to qualify for the 12th time in a row, host Russian Rubin Kazan on Tuesday when BATE Borisov entertain Sturm Graz.

Israel's Maccabi Haifa welcome Genk on Wednesday.