LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) – Arsenal gritted out a nervous 1-0 win over Udinese in London to take a first-leg lead in the Champions League playoffs to Italy in a week's time. An early goal from Theo Walcott would seal the win in a game that was never comfortable for the declining English giants.
Arsenal's side was weakened by injuries, suspensions and a massive transfer-out. The Gunners rarely looked comfortable against an Italian side that gradually grew in confidence. Overshadowed by Sunday's transfer of captain Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona -- and the expected departure of Samir Nasri to Manchester City -- the match had an almost funereal air until Walcott's 4th minute strike gave the Emirates crowd visible relief. Set up by Aaron Ramsey, Walcott was in the box to accept an uncontested cross from the right flank that the England international could not miss.
That was the only high point.
Despite some key absences, the Gunners often looked tepid and sacred. New captain Robin van Persie could not take part in the match; he along with Nasri and his manager, Arsene Wenger, were suspended for their actions in the second leg of their last 16 tie against Barcelona last season. And, when Arsenal lost two more players to injury on the night (Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou) they were forced to finish the game with two 19-year-old prospects.
Wenger, who served his touchline ban in the director's box, was visibly discomfited by what he saw throughout the night. Despite his defiant pre-game words to the contrary, Arsenal's failings of the last two seasons were again on full display and will clearly put Wenger in the proverbial "hot-seat."
Arsenal's defense struggled to contain Udinese's Maurico Isla and Pablo Armero; with the latter torturing Bacary Sagna down the far flank for the entire evening. Had Wojciech Szczesny not made a critical save on Antonio Di Natale late in the match, Udinese would have deservedly stolen points. These defensive flaws are well-known; as Arsenal leaked goals last year like a rusty tugboat.
The unexpected was the complete disappearing act of Tomas Rosicky and the continued ineffectiveness of the much-touted Marouane Chamakh. Only Walcott and Gervinho showed pace and ideas up top on the night. Showing great promise, Gervinho is at least two months away from developing the speed and understanding needed to succeed at the top-flight level.
The Gunners now face a disturbing test, with only a single goal to shield themselves. They look very beatable, and it would not be a shock if Udinese is the team to send them packing.
Other UCL action
Elsewhere, the veteran campaigners from Olympique Lyon didn't worry when Rubin Kazan struck early. Nor did they seem to sweat despite a harrowing first 20 minutes after the interval. That experience carried them to a 3-1 triumph, which should be enough to see them through to the group stages once again.
Batefimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand were the architects of the French victory, but Rubin more than played its part in a free-flowing match. The Russians were unlucky at times and deserve credit for carrying the match to Lyon. Unfortunately, their slack marking eventually cost them the game.
Fans were given flashbacks when Vladimir Dyadyun met a Natcho corner kick to beat Hugo Lloris only three minutes in the match. In the previous round, Rubin had used their first leg victory in Kiev against Dynamo as the basis for their aggregate victory. But Lyon is not Dynamo, and they quickly settled things up behind the man of the match.
Gomis side-footed home the equalizer in the 10th minute, then would seal the win five minutes before half time. Defender Solomon Kvirkvelia went to ground in front of the onrushing Gomis, but succeeded only in tipping the ball into the near corner.
The goal that might decide this tie came with 19 minutes left when Kim Kallstrom's right side corner was hit low and hard for a dipping Briand to head past Ryzikhov. That came after some non-stop pressure from Rubin, but their best chance, from Turkish star Gokdeniz, was well-saved by Lloris.
In Copenhagen, the Danish champs, FC Copenhagen , were all over Viktoria Plzen for a half without finding a breakthrough. Withering play from Pierre Bengston and Claudemir saw Marek Cech under siege in the visiting goal. Solvi Ottesen accidently chested a ball from Daniel Kolaer into his own net in the 52nd minute that signaled the alarm Viktoria needed to turn the game over.
Ottesen would make amends when he sunk a free header ten minutes later off a corner. However, Vaclav Pilar won the game when he was allowed to shoot right down the gut, while Martin Fillo put an emphatic stamp on things with his gorgeous left-footed curler across the face of goal with ten minutes to play.
De Grolsch Veste re-opens
FC Twente escaped with a 2-2 draw against a Benfica side that showed plenty of creative savvy and grit. Probably feeling that they should have headed back to Lisbon with more, the Portuguese protested vehemently that the tying header from Bryan Ruiz came only after the Costa Rican star had pushed a defender away in order to meet a fine Willem Janssen cross in the 80th minute.
Twente went ahead in the sixth minute with the Benfica back line seemed mesmerized by Luuk DeJong, who cut this way and that along the 18 yard line before unleashing a low shot which deceived Artur in the Portuguese goal.
Benfica was back on terms in the 20th minute when Mihaylov made a mistake, trapped on his six-yard line when Oscar Cardozo carried down the inside right channel, stopped suddenly outside the box and hit the far top corner with a curling drive. Axel Witsel's perfect pass had Nolito completely alone four yards out to make it 2-1 in the 35th minute. Benfica might have won it in stoppage time, but Nolito, the former Barcelona prospect, was denied from close range.
In truth, Benfica should have been more than simply 2-1 ahead at that point, their attacks often fluid and sharp. FC Twente's goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov and hardline defense was able to contain much of what was thrown their way.
And another stalemate
BATE Borisov will wonder how they didn't beat SK Sturm Graz in Minsk: a neutral might offer the suggestion that they simply weren't good enough in the attacking game to defeat a resolute Austrian side that scored early and then seemed bent on protecting what Manuel Weber had given them in the 12th minute.
Weber's perfectly-timed run onto an Imre Szabics pass that bisected the Belorussian defense gave Sturm the lead and effectively meant that the final 78 minutes would see BATE trying to solve a defense-first visitor. BATE would finally score in the 59th minute when Marko Simic rose between two defenders to head home a free kick. Much of the night was squandered with numerous chances left unanswered in the box.
Indeed, though UEFA boss Michel Platini's decision to include more "minnows" in the group stage is clearly good value for some of the lesser lights. You're left to wonder why one of these two teams -- who could not beat each other -- will be in the lucrative next round while others far more deserving will be left home at this stage.
The Champions league playoffs continue tomorrow with five games, including Bayern Munich - FC Zurich from 2PM EDT on FOX Soccer. Every Champions League game is live on the Fox family of networks, and all matches are covered in real time on Twitter at @foxsoccertrax.