According to fans of English football, the Champions League qualifying draw between Arsenal and Udinese would inevitably be a one-sided contest. After all, Udinese had lost Alexis Sanchez. How could they compete with a club that has made it to the group stages every season since 1998-1999, and regularly demolishes Italian sides in European competition?
The answer, it seems, lies in favoring the past and not examining the present. Yes, Arsenal were a quality side. Still are -- but their shine is fading. Cesc Fabregas went off to Barcelona and scored against Napoli on Monday. Samir Nasri has officially joined Manchester City. Arsenal have but one point from their first two matches, and have yet to bring in players to strengthen the side.
Udinese, meanwhile, are used to coping with the loss of key players. In order for the small club to not just survive, but to make a decent showing in Serie A, the friulani buy cheap and sell high. They didn't just lose Sanchez this summer (hate to break it to you, but this is a club of more than one player, surprise surprise) but sold Gokhan Inler to Napoli and Cristian Zapata to Villareal, losing flair up front, strength in midfield and steadiness at the back. Yet Udinese's extensive scouting network has already found replacements, easily slotting them in to Francesco Guidolin's free-flowing system.
Granted, the zebrette did suffer early on in the first leg, when Theo Walcott slipped a ball from Aaron Ramsey into the back of the net. But considering three of the Udinese back four -- Neuton (anyone else just see "Neutron", there?), Danilo (also Crown Prince of Montenegro), and Joel Ekstrand (I don't have a clever comment) -- were making their competitive debuts for the club, it's remarkable the way they pulled together. Of course, credit must also be given to goalkeeper Samir Handanović, who pulled off a stunning save to deny Walcott a second in injury time.
So Arsenal lead the tie 1-0, and a crucial away goal could seal it for the London club. Robin Van Persie returns from suspension, and considering Arsene Wenger is increasingly desperate, will likely start on Monday. Wenger also returns to the bench, despite violating his two-match touchline ban by communicating with the dugout during the first leg. I don't know what sorts of sweet-talking Arsenal did to get this punishment deferred, but at least the Frenchman will be around to take out his frustration on innocent water bottles.
The visitors may have the lead, but it's not a comfortable one, particularly considering the players available to Wenger. It's been confirmed that Jack Wilshere will miss the second leg, with his ankle injury still acting up. Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs, both starters in the first leg, are out with injury, but it seems Johan Djourou will be fit, while young Carl Jenkinson will earn a start. They'll likely be joined by Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen at the back, with Alex Song, Tomas Rosicky (who should be fit), and Aaron Ramsey in the middle. Gervinho, van Persie, and Walcott will lead the attack. It seems unlikely that Arsenal won't score at least one, but considering that defense, will they be able to keep Udinese out? Granted, provided Arsenal score, the fruilani will need net at least three goals, but provided they just manage to finish (sound familiar, Arsenal?) that might not be a problem.
As for Udinese, expect to see a similar, or possibly identical, lineup to that which faced Arsenal last week. Granted, the zebrette are set to face Juventus in their first match of the Serie A season, but Guidolin will be taking this match quite seriously. They've got injuries, too, but no new ones: Antonio Floro Flores misses out again (not that big a deal) while Maurizio Domizzi is still missing from defense, leaving that same young trio to step up, joined by Mehdi Benatia. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu sits back as a defensive midfielder, with Giampiero Pinzi and Kwadwo Asamoah as central midfielders, Mauricio Isla and Pablo Armero operating on the wings. Antonio Di Natale leads the attack in Guidolin's 4-1-4-1.
It's an uphill battle for Udinese, but not one that requires them to climb the Alps. This Arsenal side is still quality, but the uncertainty and disarray surrounding the club at the moment could filter into their play, leaving them vulnerable to Udinese's quick counters.*
*This being said, I fully expect the Italian side to lose, because the universe sure doesn't love me that much to give them a win.