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Arsenal's Wenger faces crucial test against Udinese
Published : 16 Aug 2011 05:00:13
Arsene Wenger admits it is essential for Arsenal to avoid an early Champions League exit against Udinese as the Gunners boss tries to stop his club spiralling out of control.
Wenger has endured a miserable close season which consisted of desperate attempts to persuade Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri to stay and a total failure to sign the top-class players required to revive a squad that has now gone six years without winning a trophy.
In the circumstances, missing out on a place in the group stages of Europe's elite club competition could be disastrous for Wenger.
The French coach has looked increasingly vulnerable over the last 12 months and, while he is unlikely to be sacked on the basis of one result, there can be no doubt his position would be severely weakened if Arsenal have to spend a year playing in the Europa League.
Wenger has never been under such intense pressure and he acknowledges the importance of beating Udinese in the play-off round.
"I would say the draw is difficult but possible. Who would want to play against an Italian opponent? We know we will have to be at our best to qualify," he said.
"Let's try to be at our best as quickly as we can because it is important for us to go through in the Champions League."
A relatively solid display in Saturday's 0-0 draw at Newcastle was marred by Gervinho's foolish dismissal for slapping Joey Barton.
The Ivory Coast striker will be available when Udinese visit the Emirates Stadium for the first leg on Tuesday.
But Dutch forward Robin van Persie is suspended after his controversial red card for kicking the ball away in last season's defeat at Barcelona, while Wenger will be absent from the touchline as he serves a ban for "inappropriate language" directed at referee Massimo Busacca in the Nou Camp.
Nasri is also suspended but the French midfielder was unlikely to have featured anyway after he missed the Newcastle match while he tries to force through a move to Manchester City.
The Fabregas saga came to an end late Sunday when a deal was reached to sell the Spaniard to Barcelona for a fee of around Â£35 million.
With the distraction of Fabregas gone, Wenger can at least focus his attention on players who want to be at the club. Whether those players are good enough to lift the gloom surrounding the Emirates Stadium is another question entirely.
France right-back Bacary Sagna still has faith and he believes the defensive solidity shown at Newcastle proves his team-mates are up for the fight whatever the critics might say.
"I think it was very important to start the season with this kind of game," Sagna told Arsenal's website. "We were very consistent throughout and I think we were all defensively aware, from the forward players to the back four.
"Even if we had setbacks during the game we fought hard until the end and we have to keep showing that kind of spirit if we want to win things. This is how we want to play all season and it was a good start."
Udinese finished fourth in Serie A last season but Francesco Guidolin's side are likely to come to London intent on keeping it tight at the back with a view to putting Arsenal under pressure in next week's second leg at the Stadio Friuli.
Guidolin's squad has been weakened by the sales of three key players since last season, with star forward Alexis Sanchez joining Barcelona, while Cristian Zapata moved to Villarreal and Gokhan Inler left for Napoli.
Experienced defender Maurizio Domizzi could be sidelined with a thigh injury on Tuesday and Guidolin will need a dominant display from striker Antonio Di Natale, who has scored 57 goals in the last two seasons.