Pivotal match for Wenger’s Gunners
ARSENAL play more than just a game in this genteel relic of Italia '90 tonight.
Arsene Wenger's men play for the right to still be considered a European power, to be an attractive proposition for transfer targets, to reassure fans there is life after Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. They must also prove they can cope without Jack Wilshere, who Wenger revealed yesterday had suffered a serious setback in his recovery from injury.
Wenger had hoped his best remaining midfielder might be available for a tense evening at Stadio Friuli. Sadly for Arsenal, the only boot Wilshere is wearing is of the surgical variety, protecting a right ankle first damaged on England duty last season.
"Jack has had a setback,'' sighed Wenger. "It's a hot spot on the bone of his ankle that if you continue to play it can lead to a stress fracture. So we had to stop him."
He is possibly "back to square one" in his rehabilitation, Wenger added, and definitely out for "two to three weeks".
A bemused Wenger must be wondering what each hour will bring next, whether bad news about Wilshere falling lame or good news like UEFA's unexpected show of clemency, allowing him to sit on the bench tonight while waiting for his appeal against his two-match ban to be heard.
Wenger boarded the flight from Luton to Trieste yesterday afternoon having been informed that Arsenal had been fined £30,000 for failing to control their players at Newcastle. As he attempted to relax, the Frenchman will have recognised the face beaming out from the front of the in-flight magazine -- Tony Adams, that embodiment of resilience in the red of Arsenal.
"My parents gave me the greatest gift I could have wished for and that's fight,'' Adams explained in the magazine. "I'm a fighter. Knock me down and I get up again.''
How Arsenal could do with some of that Adams spirit in the face of adversity today. The heat is on Arsenal, incredibly so, with temperatures expected to touch 30C at kick-off. It promises to be a long, hot night, when Arsenal need 11 hungry men who can keep their cool. It is a night for the tackle-making of Thomas Vermaelen and chance-taking of Robin van Persie.
Nasri and Fabregas sold, Wilshere lame, confidence bruised, manager nervous: this is a test for Arsenal.
"Sometimes, the fact that you lose big players gets the team on the edge a little bit and forces each of them to give a bit more, fight together and that's what we will want to show,'' Wenger said. "It's our life. We want to be at the top."
The thought of a first season in 14 without hearing that Champions League anthem brings beads of sweat glistening to Arsenal brows.
"It has big meaning to me, to the players and to the club as well,'' said Wenger.
Cruelly, if accidentally, Udinese officials had led Wenger into a room for the press conference that was crammed with trophies, piled up on tables, shelves, even on the stairs. Some big gleaming pots stood on the floor, almost as emergency door-stops.
Arsenal forget at their peril what a huge night this is for Udinese. It is also about cash and cachet, pride and credibility for the Italians, also about feeding their supporters' fervour.
An early away goal, meaning Udinese must score three, would quieten the crowd and do wonders for Arsenal's confidence.
"We want to score and as well be solid defensively because this is a team (Udinese) that has shown in the first game that they can be dangerous,'' Wenger said.
Vermaelen will need all his timing and positional nous to tame Antonio di Natale.
Wenger then disputed that he had made a famous remark in pre-season that Arsenal could not be deemed ambitious if they sold both Nasri and Fabregas. Those present in Malaysia insist that he was indeed quoted correctly.
Unfortunately for Wenger it is abundantly apparent the scale of riches that players like Nasri can enjoy elsewhere. And the riches are not solely financial.
For those chasing medals, City look a better bet than Arsenal, who simply dare not lose this tie. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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