For Arsenal and their under-pressure manager Arsene Wenger, the consequences of failing to qualify for the Champions League proper are unthinkable, but a nervous night could be in store against Italian outfit Udinese on Tuesday.
For the first time in Wenger’s hugely successful reign, questions are being asked of the Frenchman, with the Emirates crowd unhappy with a transfer policy that shows no sign of fixing the obvious deficiencies in defence, and has also seen captain Cesc Fabregas leave for boyhood club Barcelona, soon to be followed by midfielder Samir Nasri’s mooted switch to mega-rich Manchester City.
Six years without a trophy has brought frustrations to a head and at odds of 13/25 to beat the Little Zebras tonight, who are 11/2 to cause an upset, the Gunners are easily swerved.
Since losing the Carling Cup final in catastrophic fashion to relegated Birmingham City in February, Arsenal have won only two of their 12 domestic games, a period that has seen them score a measly 15 goals.
Tonight could be a similar struggle. As well as losing Fabregas, Robin van Persie is suspended following his harsh sending off against Barcelona at the Nou Camp last season, while Nasri is banned after comments he made about the referee following the same game. Meanwhile, Wenger will be forced to watch from the stands after his reaction to Van Persie’s red card landed him in hot water with UEFA.
With Jack Wilshere also ruled out and Tomas Rosicky struggling to shake off a groin strain, Arsenal will be relying on the likes of talented yet erratic Theo Walcott, Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin and the untried summer signing Gervinho.
Udinese, on the other hand, come to the Emirates off the back of a great season in Serie A, securing fourth spot in swashbuckling style. Only Inter Milan scored more than Udinese’s 65 Serie A goals last term, and their tally of 38 away from home was 12 more than anyone else managed.
Yet if Arsenal have lost key players, the same applies to Udinese. Cristian Zapata and Gökhan İnler have left for Villarreal and Napoli respectively, but the sale of their star man Alexis Sanchez, also to Champions League winners Barcelona, will damage Udinese’s cause the most. Winger Sanchez scored 12 Serie A goals last season, winning plaudits worldwide for his performances.
Veteran striker Antonio Di Natale remains, however, and with 28 league goals to his name last season, the 19/10 on the Italian to score at any time is tempting if Udinese display the attacking verve that served them so well last year.
The fact Udinese’s season has yet to start may play a factor late on when Arsenal’s fitness should begin to tell, but this early on there are many unknowns. Arsenal simply can’t be trusted at 13/25, yet it remains to seen how Udinese cope without their trio of stars, making them a speculative punt at 11/2.
The draw is reasonably priced at 14/5, but the 19/20 for under 2.5 goals looks like a decent play. Without their quartet of creative talent Arsenal may well remain shot-shy, and anything other than a fast start will see an already deeply unhappy home crowd become even more restless.
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