MADRID – Wobbling English giants Arsenal face a massive test at Udinese Wednesday (2 p.m ET, FOX Soccer) as the Champions League Playoffs conclude. Elsewhere, Lyon look to see off Rubin Kazan while Plzen hope to complete their upset of Copenhagen.
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Arsenal, despite holding a one-goal lead , have a heavy row to hoe in Udine. Simply put, Arsenal are a side falling apart in slow motion, and it would not be surprising to see them go down in Italy despite their glittering record in these sorts of games. The club have taken but a point in their first two Premier League games and were roundly beaten by Liverpool on the weekend. In addition, they have been hit by a raft of injuries and high-profile defections.
The Gunners latest loss is Samir Nasri, who transferred Tuesday to Manchester City, joining Cesc Fabregas as a high-profile want-away . With the team's two best playmakers out the door to greener pastures, morale in the dressing room is at an all-time low. The troubles are compounded by a rash of early-season injuries, with Jack Wilshere just the most prominent member sidelined.
Udinese were unlucky not to have carried home something from the first leg. Maurico Isla and Pablo Armero gave the Arsenal back line fits, with Antonio Di Natale kept off the scoresheet only due to the intervention of Wojciech Szczesny. The Italians will have a more callow back line to run at this time out as Laurent Koscielny is likely to miss the match due to a back problem; Johan Djourou will deputize even though he is carrying a hamstring injury of his own. The Gunners do get Robin van Persie, Alex Song and Gervinho back into their squad, but the malaise affecting this team has proved hard to dispel.
Should Arsenal flop out, this could be the end of the line for Wenger at the club. Last week, the indelible takeaways were the images of him grimacing in rictus at his team's performance from the stands. Watch for a repeat.
In our other matches, Lyon have a difficult task in Russia despite carrying a 3-1 lead from the Stade de Gerland . The French will be missing four key players for the game -- John Mensah, Cris, Yohan Gourcuff and Ederson -- but are still expected to grit out a result against a team who have a lengthy casualty list of their own.
Playmaker Carlos Eduardo, midfielder Aleksandr Ryazantsev and defenders Cesar Navas, Aleksandr Orekhov and Oleg Kuzmin are all out for Rubin, and while the Russians hope to get left-back Christian Ansaldi back in time, he remains questionable at press time.
Rubin Kazan do have some hope because of their away goal, but the open game they will be forced to play does not suit this defensively fragile side, meaning that Batefimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand may once again be able to put the hammer down. Last time Sergei Ryzikhov was under fire all night long; expect fewer forays as the French protect the lead but a similar outcome nonetheless.
Plzen shocked Copenhagen with an emphatic 3-1 road win and now look to close matters out. The Czechs have never made the group stages and their win last week is either a sign that they are up and comers -- or that the Danes are vulnerable to epic collapse. The truth is somewhere in between. Copenhagen fell apart after Solvi Ottesen put the ball into his own net, but Pierre Bengston and Claudemir had been testing Marek Cech for nearly an hour without success. Plzen will have to take care in the opening stages, but would have to concede three unanswered goals to fall out. Surely impossible?
Benfica take two away goals back to Portugal as they host Twente. The Ports will surely feel they could have done better in Holland, having been the more incisive side for much of the match. But Twente struck early and late -- the latter in controversial fashion when Bryan Ruiz was seen to shove a defender out of the way to score -- and have great goalkeeping in Nikolay Mihaylov to make a game out of it.
This looks a much stronger Benfica side, however, reinforced by the presence of the quicksilver Nolito up front. They carry a famous reputation in Europe and it's about time the Lisbon team returned to prominence.
In the dog of the day, Sturm Graz will defend their slight advantage at home against BATE. The Austrians carry an away goal after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Minsk that was hard on the Belorussians. BATE were the better side but don't have much in the way of an attack; the Austrians decided to pack it in and protect on the road. Neither team is likely to be more than cannon fodder at the group stage.